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The apartheid will end when Israelis have to face its cost

When former US president Jimmy Carter said that Israel would have to choose between maintaining an apartheid occupation of Palestine and a peace agreement, he was branded an enemy of Israel.

The former US president Jimmy Carter set off a firestorm in 2006 when he said that Israel would have to choose between maintaining an apartheid occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians. That Mr Carter brokered Israel's most important peace treaty with an Arab country was immaterial; he was branded an enemy of Israel, an anti-Semite and even a Holocaust-denier.

Israel's friends in the US reacted out of instinct, knowing that an association with apartheid - South Africa's erstwhile system of racial oppression - would bring international condemnation and isolation. But there was no word of protest from that quarter last week when Israel's defence minister said what Mr Carter had. "If, and as long as between the Jordan (River) and the (Mediterranean) Sea there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic," warned Ehud Barak, speaking at Israel's annual Herzliya security conference. "If the Palestinians vote in elections it is a binational state and if they don't vote it is an apartheid state."

Which, of course, is exactly what Mr Carter was arguing. The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert warned in November 2007 that without a two-state solution, Israel would "face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights", which it would be unable to win because American Jews would not support a state that denies voting rights to all of its subjects.Mr Olmert and Mr Barak, of course, raised the spectre of "apartheid" to remind Israelis that they could face international isolation if they remain indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians. Sometimes, such warnings from Israelis come as if attached to a demographic time-bomb - the idea that once Palestinians become a majority of the population between the Jordan River and the sea, Israel will be left in an apartheid situation. But apartheid is a qualitative, not a quantitative notion: it's the denial of basic democratic rights to a whole category of people, regardless of their numerical strength, that defines apartheid.

While it may have been couched as a warning about the future, Mr Barak's statement was actually a confession of the present state of affairs: one state has controlled the territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean since 1967, and that state denies the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza the right to vote for the government that rules them. That is the essence of apartheid.The rubric of "occupation" actually serves as a convenient fiction for Israel because it suggests a temporary condition. But at home, the Israelis have stopped pretending that their presence in the West Bank is temporary. They plan to keep major settlement blocs, illegal under the rules of occupation as defined by the Geneva Convention, in the Jordan Valley, East Jerusalem and so on. For Israelis, there is no distinction in lifestyle or access between living in the West Bank and living inside Israel's 1967 borders - the settlements are now little more than an extension of Israeli suburbia.

Equally fictitious is the notion that there is a "peace" in the works that will change the situation. Israel's leaders are not prepared to offer a credible Palestinian state, and they are under no pressure, domestically or internationally, to do so. Israeli public opinion has soured on the need for peace with the Palestinians, bottled up in Gaza and behind a security wall in the West Bank. Why risk provoking a civil war with militant settlers who are the backbone of the Israeli army and threaten violence to hang onto the West Bank? In the old days, Yitzhak Rabin would say that Israel would "pursue peace as if terror did not exist and fight terror as if peace did not exist". For today's Israelis, why pursue peace if terror has been contained?

By opening the peace process (but never concluding it) Israel found itself increasingly integrated in a global society with Europe and the US. It's football teams play in European leagues; its supermodels grace the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition; its hi-tech entrepreneurs are key players in the digital marketplace. Most Israelis never see Palestinians, except during stints in the military. The "demographic" threat is an abstraction.

It should come as little surprise that Israelis are cool towards Mr Obama's peace effort: Israel's cost-benefit analysis weighs against pursuing a peace agreement that carries risk. There are no consequences for maintaining the status quo. Unless Mr Obama and others can change that cost-benefit analysis, they're wasting their time.It wasn't a moral epiphany that prompted Rabin to embrace the Oslo peace process; it was his reading of the geopolitical situation at the end of the Gulf War, and the assumption that Israel could not rely on unconditional US support. But Mr Sharon and Mr Netanyahu subsequently proved that Israel can, in fact, count on US support without concluding a two-state peace - it simply must go through the motions of a "peace process".

The apartheid fear for Israeli leaders is not of the moral turpitude of maintaining such a system - which they already do - it's a fear of this being recognised for what it is.Mr Barak's recent confession came in the same week that South Africa celebrated the 20th anniversary of its former president FW de Klerk's announcement that he would free Nelson Mandela and negotiate a political settlement. Like Rabin, de Klerk was motivated by a strategic calculus. Sanctions were beginning to bite, and with the Cold War all but over the US government made clear that they would not come to de Klerk's aid. Maintaining apartheid would leave the regime isolated and increasingly impoverished. The cost of maintaining the status quo offset the risks of heading down the uncertain road of peace.

The Israelis are not going to dismantle what Mr Barak has essentially admitted is an apartheid system unless the consequences of maintaining it become prohibitive. As long as they can count on unconditional support in the West, the Israelis will go through the motions but maintain the status quo. The optimist might even read Mr Barak's "apartheid" admission as a cry for help: certainly, those Israeli leaders serious about a two-state solution are unlikely to make any headway unless they can demonstrate to their own people that the cost of maintaining the status quo have become too high. But they can only do this if Mr Obama shows Israelis the consequences.

Tony Karon is a New York based analyst who blogs at rootlesscosmopolitan.com

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