JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister said Tuesday that he still hopes to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, because the alternative would be absorbing them into Israel and destroying the Jewish character of the state.
"I want to solve the conflict with the Palestinians because I don't want a binational state," Benjamin Netanyahu told a rare news conference. "For as long as it depends on me, we will ensure the Jewish and democratic character of Israel."
The statement was notable because it in effect concedes a key argument made by Netanyahu's ideological opponents on Israel's Zionist left: A pullout from territories the Palestinian claim for a state is not just a concession that could be made in exchange for peace — but also an imperative for an Israel that wants to remain a Jewish state that is also democratic.
Jews make up roughly 80 percent of Israel's almost 8 million people. However, if Israel is combined with the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — the lands it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war — then the Arab population nears parity, and in the view of some demographers is likely to become a majority soon.
Indeed, as the prospect of peace seems to grow more remote, increasingly there are voices on the Palestinian side predicting — as a threatened default rather than a desired outcome — a "one-state solution" in which Jews and Arabs have equal status.
The so-called "demographic argument" for a pullout has become more critical to the dovish Israeli opposition in recent years, especially since the Palestinian uprising of 2000-2005, punctuated by grisly suicide bombings that killed hundreds, left many in Israel distrustful of Palestinian intentions and despairing of ever reaching peace on agreed terms.
Reflecting the sentiment, Israel unilaterally pulled settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 in an attempt to shed control over about 1.5 million Palestinians.
Twice in recent years the sides seemed to come close to a peace deal that would have included the West Bank as well — but in the end they could not agree on details, in particular the division of Jerusalem and the Palestinian demand that refugees and their descendants, who now number in the millions, be allowed to return to Israel.
Soon after Netanyahu was elected three years ago, he surprised many by abandoning decades of opposition to Palestinian independence and embracing the concept of a Palestinian state, albeit a demilitarized and restricted one. However, in his June 2009 speech announcing this position, he did not cite the demographic argument as the reason for his position.
Since then peace talks have never taken off in earnest, and the current stumbling block is a Palestinian demand that all construction of Jewish settlements on occupied land be halted. About a half million Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel counters that this was never a condition for talks before.
The Palestinians — and most of the international community — view the settlements as illegal or illegitimate. Many Israelis oppose them too — some driven by the sense that they are not in Israel's interest because they make a partition more difficult.
Israel did remove 8,000 settlers from Gaza when it pulled out, but the scale of the challenge in the West Bank is far bigger — leading Israeli negotiators over the years to seek border adjustments that would incorporate many of the settlers into Israel.
But under most envisioned scenarios, tens of thousands would still have to be moved to enable a partition — or at least one that did not leave Israelis inside the Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has further alienated the Palestinians by making clear that in any future deal he would seek to retain significant chunks of the West Bank because of their strategic value, since Israel in its pre-1967 borders is at its narrowest point only nine miles wide.
"The existence of a Jewish state is not just a matter of separation" from the Palestinians, he said Tuesday. "It's a matter of security, preserving our basic national interests — and this requires negotiations."
"It is the Palestinians and not us who chose not to hold negotiations over three years," he said. "I hope they change their minds in the coming months. We are ready and prepared to hold negotiations."
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