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Between the Settlers and the Unsettlers, the One-State Solution Is on Our Doorstep

Why Israel will soon be the only state able to govern Judea and Samaria, and the only military force capable of securing its borders

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Conventional wisdom says Israel must reach a peace deal quickly, before population trends and diplomatic isolation overtake the Jewish state. Demographics and geopolitics tell a different story.

A one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is upon us. It won’t arrive by Naftali Bennett’s proposal to annex the West Bank’s Area C, or through the efforts of BDS campaigners and Jewish Voice for Peace to alter the Jewish state. But it will happen, sooner rather than later, as the states on Israel’s borders disintegrate and other regional players annex whatever they can. As that happens, Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria is becoming inevitable.

Last week’s rocket attacks from Gaza failed to inflict many casualties in Israel—but they administered a mortal wound to Palestinian self-governance. Hamas launched its deepest strikes ever into Israel after the IDF cracked down on its West Bank operations following the murder last month of three Israeli boys, arresting nearly 900 members of Hamas and other terrorist groups. Humiliated in the territories, and unable to pay its 44,000 Gaza employees, Hamas acted from weakness, gambling that missile attacks would elicit a new Intifada on the West Bank. Although Fatah militias joined in the rocket attacks from Gaza, for now the Palestinian organizations are in their worst disarray in 20 years.

The settlers of Judea and Samaria have stood in the cross-hairs of Western diplomacy for two decades, during which the word “settler” has become a term of the highest international opprobrium. Yet the past decade of spiraling conflicts in the Middle East have revealed that what is settled in the region is far less significant than what is unsettled. Iran’s intervention into the Syrian civil conflict has drawn the Sunni powers into a war of attrition that already has displaced more than 10 million people, mostly Sunnis, and put many more at risk. The settled, traditional, tribal life of the Levant has been shattered. Never before in the history of the region have so many young men had so little hope, so few communal ties, and so many reasons to take up arms.

As a result, the central premise of Western diplomacy in the region has been pulled inside-out, namely that a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue was the key to long-term stability in the Middle East. Now the whole of the surrounding region has become one big refugee crisis. Yet the seemingly spontaneous emergence of irregular armies like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now rampaging through northern Mesopotamia should be no surprise. The misnamed Arab Spring of 2011 began with an incipient food crisis in Egypt and a water crisis in Syria. Subsidies from the Gulf States keep Egypt on life support. In Syria and Iraq, though, displaced populations become foraging armies that loot available resources, particularly oil, and divert the proceeds into armaments that allow the irregulars to keep foraging. ISIS is selling $800 million a year of Syrian oil to Turkey, according to one estimate, as well as selling electricity from captured power plants back to the Assad government. On June 11 it seized the Bajii power plant oil refinery in northern Iraq, the country’s largest.

The region has seen nothing like it since the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. Perpetual war has turned into a snowball that accumulates people and resources as it rolls downhill and strips the ground bare of sustenance. Those who are left shiver in tents in refugee camps, and their young men go off to the war. There is nothing new about this way of waging war; it was invented in the West during the Thirty Years War by the imperial general Albrecht von Wallenstein, and it caused the death of nearly half the population of Central Europe between 1618 and 1648.

As a result of this spiraling warfare, four Arab states—Libya, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—have effectively ceased to exist. Lebanon, once a Christian majority country, became a Shia country during the past two decades under the increased domination of Hezbollah. Nearly 2 million Syrian Sunnis have taken refuge in Lebanon, as Israeli analyst Pinhas Inbari observes, and comprise almost half of Lebanon’s total population of 4 million, shifting the demographic balance to the Sunnis—while the mass Sunni exodus tilts the balance of power in Syria toward the Alawites and other religious minorities, who are largely allied with Iran. Jordan, meanwhile, has taken in a million Syrian Sunnis, making Palestinians a minority inside Jordan for the first time in a generation. A region that struggled to find sustenance for its people before 2011 has now been flooded with millions of refugees without resources or means of support. They are living for the most part on largesse from the Gulf States, and their young men are prospective cannon fodder.

The remaining states in the region—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—will alternately support and suppress the new irregular armies as their interests require. Where does ISIS get its support, apart from oil hijacking in Syria and bank robberies in Mosul? There are allegations that ISIS receives support from Turkey, the Sunni Gulf States, and Iran. Pinhas Inbari claims that Shiite Iran is funding Sunni extremists “to be certain that a strong Iraqi state does not emerge again along its western border.” There are equally credible reports that each of these powers wants to stop ISIS. Saudi Arabia fears that Sunni extremists might overthrow the monarchy. Turkey fears that the depredations of ISIS on its border will trigger the formation of an independent Kurdish state, which it has opposed vehemently for decades. Iran views ISIS as a Sunni competitor for influence in the region.

To some extent, I believe, all these reports are true. The mess in the Middle East brings to mind the machinations around Swedish intervention in the Thirty Years War between 1627 and 1635, when France’s Cardinal Richelieu paid Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus to intervene on the Protestant side in order to weaken France’s Catholic rival Austria. At different times, Protestant Saxony and Catholic Bavaria allied with France, Austria, and each other, respectively. France and Sweden began as allies, briefly became enemies, and then were allies again. Looming over this snake-pit of religious, dynastic, and national rivalries was the figure of Albrecht von Wallenstein, the Austrian generalissimo who twice saved the Empire from defeat at the hands of the Protestants. Wallenstein, commanding a polyglot mercenary army with no national or religious loyalty, played both sides, and Austria had him murdered in 1634.

There is more than coincidence to the parallels between the Middle East today and 17th-century Europe. Iran’s intervention into Syria’s civil conflict inaugurated a new kind of war in the region, the sort that Richelieu practiced in the 1620s. Iran’s war objectives are not national or territorial in the usual sense; rather, the objective is the war itself, that is, the uprooting and destruction of potentially hostile populations. With a third of Syria’s population displaced and several million expelled, the Assad regime has sought to change Syria’s demographics to make the country more congenial to Shiite rule. That in turn elicits a new kind of existential desperation from the Saudis, who are fighting for not only the survival of their sclerotic and corrupt monarchy, but also for the continuation of Sunni life around them. Today Iraq’s Sunnis, including elements of Saddam Hussein’s mainly Sunni army and the 100,000 strong “Sons of Iraq” force hired by then-U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus during the 2007-2008 surge, are making common cause with ISIS. Tomorrow they might be shooting at each other. The expectation that the waves of sectarian and tribal violence that have caused national borders to crumble across the Middle East will die down in 30 years may be both incredibly grim and wildly optimistic.

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In the background of the region’s disrupted demographics, a great demographic change overshadows the actions of all the contenders. That is decline of Muslim fertility, and the unexpected rise in Jewish fertility. The fall in Muslim birth rate is most extreme in Iran and Turkey, with different but related consequences. When Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979, the average Iranian woman had seven children; today the total fertility rate has fallen to just 1.6 children, the sharpest drop in demographic history. Iran still has a young population, but it has no children to succeed them. By mid-century Iran will have a higher proportion of elderly dependents than Europe, an impossible and unprecedented burden for a poor country. Iran’s sudden aging will be followed by Turkey, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Iran’s disappearing fertility is in a sense the Shah’s revenge. Iran is the most literate Muslim country, thanks in large part to an ambitious literacy campaign introduced by the Shah in the early 1970s. As I showed in my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too), literacy is the best predictor of fertility in the Muslim world: Muslim women who attend high school and university marry late or not at all and have fewer children. This has grave strategic implications, as Iran’s leaders unabashedly discuss.

Between 2005 and 2020, Iran’s population aged 15 to 24, that is, its pool of potential army recruits, will have fallen by nearly half. To put this in perspective, Pakistan’s military-age population will have risen by about half. In 2000, Iran had half the military-age men of its eastern Sunni neighbor; by 2020 it will have one-fourth as many. Iran’s bulge generation of youth born in the 1980s is likely to be its last, and its window for asserting Shiite power in the region will close within a decade.

The Obama Administration wants to contain Iranian aggression by accommodating Iran’s ambitions to become a regional power. As the president told Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg in March, “What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits. And that isn’t to say that they aren’t a theocracy that embraces all kinds of ideas that I find abhorrent, but they’re not North Korea. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives.” Any deal with Iran is therefore a good deal from Obama’s point of view. But that is precisely wrong: Iran does not have a suicide wish, but it knows that it is dying, and has nothing to lose by rolling the dice today.

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Between the Settlers and the Unsettlers, the One-State Solution Is on Our Doorstep

Why Israel will soon be the only state able to govern Judea and Samaria, and the only military force capable of securing its borders