21. Israel in the West Bank: Irreversible?

Since 1967 Israel has undeniably created a "one-state reality" within what was once Mandatory Palestine. With over 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the possibility of a Palestinian state seems remote. Has reality on the ground made the two-state solution impossible?

No. Improbable perhaps, but not totally inconceivable. There are many historical cases where more entangled populations, in greater numbers, have been disentangled. The problem is the cost in human suffering.

At one time the idea of "population exchange" was an acceptable part of international peace negotiations. In the aftermath of World War I, Greece and Turkey engaged in such an exchange, and the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the exchange. Some 1.5 million Greeks or Greek Orthodox were moved to Greece, and about 354,000 Muslims left Greek territory for Turkey. Unfortunately, an estimated 289,000-750,000 lost their lives in the process.

In 1940, following a border adjustment, Romania and Bulgaria carried out population transfers involving over 166,000 people moved to their ethnic homelands.

After World War II, some 12 million ethnic Germans were relocated, largely by force, from nations in Central and Eastern Europe. The death toll from the entire process is estimated as anywhere from half a million to 2.5 million.

The 1947 partition of India into separate Hindu and Muslim states led to massive movements of about five million people in each direction. At least one million people, by best estimates, died in this exchange.

More recently, the war over Kosovo produced first a flow of about 800,000 ethnic Albanians to Albania, and later the relocation of about 200,000 Serbs to Serbia.

All of this history has put population transfers into a rather bad light. The Fourth Geneva Convention, and other international legal sources, regard such transfers as illegal if they are not voluntary. But the Geneva Convention also says that an occupying power may not "transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

Therefore, Jewish settlements in the West Bank being of recent origin and established under military occupation, they are not protected by international law.

The likely parameters of any future agreement would leave the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, established on land occupied in 1967, on the Israel side of the border. Settlements in Gaza have already been evacuated -- by none other than the superhawk Ariel Sharon.

That leaves the 400,000 plus settlers in the West Bank. It has been calculated by some analysts that up to 80 percent of the settlements could be incorporated into Israel by minor changes in borders, compensating the Palestinian state with territory elsewhere. The numbers are in dispute, but the actual number of settlers forced to relocate might be considerably fewer, possibly as low as 100,000.

In a 2002 poll, 68 percent of the settlers said that they would respect a democratic decision to withdraw, and only 2 percent said they would resort to arms in order to resist evacuation. Opinions may have shifted over the years, but there is no reason to assume that removing the settlements is impossible.

In any event, it is time to respect the old adage: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.