With some sort of "meeting" or "conference" to kick start the peace process now being touted by the Bush administration, there is at least the appearance of an understanding in Washington of the importance for the region and the world of solving the "Palestinian problem."
However, if this problem is ever to be solved, it must be redefined. Those who truly seek justice and peace in the Middle East must dare to speak openly and honestly of the "Zionism problem" – and then to draw the moral, ethical, and practical conclusions that follow.
When South Africa was under a racial-supremacist, settler-colonial regime, the world recognized that the problem was the ideology and political system of the state. Anyone outside the country who referred to the "black problem" or the "native problem" (or, for that matter, to the "white problem") would instantly have been branded a racist.
The world also recognized that the solution to that problem could not be found either in "separation" (apartheid in Afrikaans) and scattered native reservations (called "independent states" by the South African regime and Bantustans by the rest of the world) or in driving the settler-colonial group in power into the sea. Rather, the solution had to be found – and to almost universal satisfaction was found – in democracy, in white South Africans growing out of their racial-supremacist ideology and political system and accepting that their interests and their children's futures would be best served in a democratic, non-racist state with equal rights for all who live there.
The solution for the land which, until it was literally wiped off the map in 1948, was called Palestine is the same. It can only be democracy.
The ever-receding "political horizon" for a decent two-state solution, which, on the ground, becomes less practical with each passing year of expanding settlements, bypass roads, and walls, is weighed down by a multitude of excruciatingly difficult "final status" issues. Israeli governments have consistently refused to discuss these final-status issues seriously, preferring to postpone them to the end of a road which is never reached – and which, almost certainly, is intended never to be reached.
Just as marriage is vastly less complicated than divorce, democracy is vastly less complicated than partition. A democratic post-Zionist solution would not require any borders to be agreed, any division of Jerusalem, anyone to move from his current home, or any assets to be evaluated and apportioned. Full rights of citizenship would simply be extended to all the surviving natives still living in the country, as happened in the United States in the early 20th century and in South Africa in the late 20th century.
The obstacle to such a simple – and morally unimpeachable – solution is, of course, intellectual and psychological. Traumatized by the Holocaust and perceived insecurity as a Jewish island in an Arab sea, Israelis have immense psychological problems in coming to grips with the practical impossibility of sustaining forever what most of mankind views as a racial-supremacist, settler-colonial regime founded upon the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous population.
Indeed, Israelis have placed themselves in a virtually impossible situation. To taste its bitter essence, Americans might try to imagine what life in their country would be like if the European settlers had not virtually exterminated the indigenous population and if almost half of today's American population were Indians, without basic human rights, impoverished, smoldering with resentment, and visible every day as the inescapable living evidence of the injustice inflicted on their ancestors.
This would not be a pleasant society in which to live. Both colonizers and colonized would be progressively degraded and dehumanized. The colonizers could, rationally, conclude that they could never be forgiven by those they had dispossessed and that no "solution" was imaginable. So it has been, and continues to be, in the lands under Israeli rule.
Perhaps the coming "meeting" or "conference" will be the last gasp of the fruitless pursuit of a separation-based solution. Perhaps those who care about justice and peace and believe in democracy can then find ways to stimulate Israelis to move beyond Zionist ideology toward a more humane, hopeful, and democratic view of present realities and future possibilities.
No one would suggest that the moral, ethical, and intellectual transformation necessary to achieve a decent one-state solution will be easy. However, more and more people now recognize that a decent two-state solution has become impossible.
It is surely time for concerned people everywhere – and particularly for Americans – to imagine a better way, to encourage Israelis to imagine a better way, and to help both Israelis and Palestinians to achieve it. It is surely time to seriously consider democracy and to give it a chance.
• John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel, is author of "The World According to Whitbeck."