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Two-state talks are adrift

It's time to start thinking about what will happen to Israel -- and U.S. policy in the Middle East -- when the peace process ends.

Politicians don't openly discuss the deep threat to Israel's existence that would result from an end to negotiations over a two-state solution (meaning a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel).

Instead, the Obama team calls for a revival of moribund peace talks -- but it is merely going through the motions. The White House is too distracted to provide the necessary involvement, and the current Israeli government has no interest in talking substance. Meantime, divided and weak Palestinian leaders are trying to rally a U.N. vote for statehood in September that won't change much on the ground.

And so we drift toward the time when a two-state solution will no longer be possible, as Israeli settlements expand on the West Bank, and publics on both sides weary of diplomacy.

Last week, I heard a group of dovish Israelis with extensive military and diplomatic expertise describe the dangers the end of the two-state formula pose to their country. They deserve to be heard.

Gilad Sher, who served as chief of staff to Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Oslo peace negotiations, said: "The current situation is unsustainable. If we discontinue the peace process, either we have an apartheid state or a Jewish-Palestinian state."

Sher was referring to demographic facts that pose an existential threat to the Jewish state, if it retains effective control over Gaza and continues to occupy the West Bank and Arab sectors of Jerusalem. Within that geographic area of "greater Israel," Jews hold a narrow edge in numbers over Palestinian Arabs. According to Sher's colleague, Shlomo Gazit, a former head of military intelligence, the percentage of Jews in greater Israel is 52 percent, and Arabs 48 percent.

Gazit calls demography "the number one threat to Israel," greater than the dangers posed by terrorism, rockets, or Iran. The latter, he believes, can be handled by Israel.

However, permanent rule over the West Bank and Gaza would destroy Israel's democracy. And -- critically important -- it would delegitimize the Israeli state abroad.

So is there any way out?

Sher and Gazit are part of a nonpartisan political movement called Blue White Future, whose founders include Sher and Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service. To promote the two-state solution, the group is trying to facilitate the relocation of Jewish settlers from the West Bank to homes inside Israel.

But as to the bigger picture, a shift in Israel's approach is unlikely under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they say, even as America's influence in the region is weakening.

The men point out that in the past, it has often taken an unexpected and dramatic event to change the approach of the parties -- and perhaps prod an American president to take a more active role.

"I believe we wouldn't have reached peace without the 1973 war," says Gazit, "and the Oslo peace talks required the first (Palestinian) intifada" to jolt the sides into negotiations.

Such unexpected events can cut both ways: If a U.N. resolution in September is met with huge Palestinian demonstrations, Gazit fears Israel might overreact harshly, prodding a third intifada.

It would be far better if movement occurred because all sides recognized the status quo was unsustainable. Failing that, we can only wait for the unexpected, and hope.