Even the most cursory look at a map of the Middle East suggests that by all reason the West Bank of the Jordan River should be a part of the state of Israel. The territory just sits there, like a kidney in the side of a state whose top and bottom are nearly separated.
But as we know from bitter history, reason does not rule in the Middle East, and the West Bank issue is no more going to disappear than the 1.2 million Palestinian Arabs who inhabit that disputed territory are going to disappear.
Because of this, every American president since Lyndon Johnson has warned, with increasing anxiety and frustration, against the expansion of Israel beyond its borders of 1967, when the West Bank and other Arab lands were occupied following the Six Day War.
The Israeli expansionist tendency elevated presidential concern to alarm in 1970, when a policy of systematic settlement of the occupied lands was initiated. When the rightist Likud coalition came to power in 1977, the settlement policy intensified, even though the international community universally perceived this activity to be in violation of international law.
As a consequence, today a map of the West Bank looks like a slice of Swiss cheese -- the holes representing Jewish settlements. After many years of frenzied settlement activity, 90,000 Israelis now live in some 240 settlements in land which the Palestinian Arabs claim as their last remnant of a homeland. If you include East Jerusalem, which Israel has formally annexed but which the Palestinians still claim, there are now a quarter of a million Israelis living in the disputed territories.
Obviously these demographics did not come about by accident. Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Sharon makes no bones that he would annex outright "Judea and Samaria" -- his term for the West Bank. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir doesn't go quite that far, but his actions suggest that he tacitly agrees.
So what clearly is taking place is the incremental annexation of the West Bank, one settlement at a time, even as the Shamir government solemnly denies annexation is its purpose.
President Bush finally drew the line in this long-standing dispute between the United States and Israel last week by bluntly declaring: No more settlements -- or no more dollars. And, judging from the initial polls, close to 90 percent of Americans agree with the president.
Since the Israelis don't like to be pushed around, sentiment seems to be running about 90 percent in the opposite direction in that country. Israelis, thank you, know what's best for Israel's interests.
But do they really know what's best, or are they being driven by an ideological nationalism?
Well, let us suppose that Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir have their way and the West Bank becomes a de facto part of the Biblical "greater Israel" which God gave to the Jews. What would be the result? It would seem that in such a situation Israel would be confronted with three choices:
1. It could expel the Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank -- the option urged by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose views still are held by a small minority of Israelis.
The sheer logistics of forcibly removing 1.2 million people from territory they have occupied for centuries boggles the mind. Moreover, to where would they be expelled? Jordan? Syria? The Sinai peninsula? Can anyone seriously believe that any country would willingly accept forced refugees? If Israel were to even remotely entertain "the Kahane solution," it would become the pariah of the world.
2. The Palestinian Arabs could be given full Israeli citizenship, including voting rights.
After all, there are already Arab Israelis, even sitting in the Israeli parliament. But there is a vast difference between the 700,000 Arab Israelis who now hold Israeli citizenship -- albeit to some extent as second-class citizens -- and 2 million Arabs in the occupied territories.
To extend full Israeli citizenship to this large a number would fundamentally alter the character of Israel's politics. Given the higher fertility rate among Arabs, sooner or later they would become a majority, and the Arabs would win at the ballot box what they had been unable to win on the battlefield. There would then indeed be a Palestinian state, and it would be Israel.
3. Israel could impose a system which would be virtually indistinguishable from South Africa-style apartheid, under which a pretense of "sovereignty" would be extended to the Arabs, giving them the authority to collect the garbage and repair the streets in their own cities and villages, but little more.
Those are stark choices indeed, but no others are readily apparent. That is why President Bush's insistence that the settlements be stopped -- despite the angry reaction in Israel -- may be the only hope of saving Israel from its own folly.
Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.