RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinians have long complained that Israel's right-wing government is killing peace prospects by settling the West Bank with Jews, but now there is something new. The Palestinian president is warning that Benjamin Netanyahu's expected victory in next week's election could lead to an Arab-majority country in the Holy Land that will eventually replace what is now Israel – unless he pursues a more moderate path of a two-state solution to the conflict.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been careful not to intervene in Tuesday's Israeli election, but it is no secret that the Palestinians hope that Netanyahu will either be ousted or at least soften his position in a new term. He has shown no sign of doing so, and opinion polls showing hard-line, pro-settlement parties well ahead days ahead of the vote have led to a sense of despair among the Palestinians.
During Netanyahu's current term, the Israeli leader has pressed forward with construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which along with the Gaza Strip were captured by Israel in the 1967 war from Jordan. Abbas says he wants to set up a state in the territories that would exist peacefully next to Israel.
The international community considers settlement construction illegal or illegitimate. And the Palestinians have refused to negotiate with Netanyahu while he continues to allow settlements to be built, saying it is a sign of bad faith.
Israeli backers of creation of a Palestinian state say relinquishing control of the Palestinian territories and its residents is the only way to ensure Israel's future as a democracy with a Jewish majority.
Mohammed Ishtayeh, a top aide to Abbas, told The Associated Press on Friday that his boss has been warning that won't be possible if settlement building continues and Israel could end up with a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority.
He warned Israel could end up with "an apartheid-style state, similar to the one of former South Africa."
"In the long run it will be against the Israeli interests because ... we Palestinians will be the majority and will struggle for equality," he said, adding that Abbas had met repeated this message in meetings with several Israeli leaders in the past year.
Abbas "told them frankly there are Palestinians who are now calling for the one-state solution, because they no longer [consider] the two-state solution viable," Ishtayeh said.
Abbas's office said the Palestinian president spoke with multiple leaders in 2012 from Israel's centrist opposition, including lawmakers from the Labor, Kadima and Meretz parties, along with mayors, university professors and social activists. He said a mayor from Netanyahu's Likud Party was among them.
Labor parliamentarian Daniel Ben-Simon told the AP he met with Abbas in Ramallah recently and was warned that time is running out for a two-state solution.
"Abbas said the two-state solution benefits both nations but he warned that if there is no two-state solution within the next two or three years then it won't be practical anymore," Ben-Simon said. "Abbas told me explicitly ... the idea of a one-state solution is escalating among Palestinians."
Palestinian officials have been closely following the Israeli election campaign, fearing Netanyahu's ambitious plans for settlement construction over the next four years could prove lethal to their dreams of a state, Ishtayeh said. More than 500,000 Israelis already live in settlements that dot the West Bank and ring east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital.
Some in Abbas' circle are holding out hope that President Barack Obama will re-engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, freed from domestic electoral considerations in his second term, get tougher with Netanyahu on settlements. Another aide, Nabil Shaath, suggested Europe is ready to jump in with its own peace plan if Washington is not.
But short of trying to rally international opinion, it seems Abbas can do little if Netanyahu wins Tuesday.
Israeli polls indicate that a majority of seats in Israel's 120-member parliament will go to right-wing, pro-settler or Jewish ultra-Orthodox religious parties. Likud is the largest among them. Netanyahu could comfortably form a coalition government with these parties, seen as his natural ideological allies. Likud's new slate of candidates is headed by hard-line lawmakers who oppose territorial concessions to the Palestinians, and a likely coalition partner, the pro-settler Jewish Home, even advocates annexing large chunks of the West Bank. Even if Netanyahu adds a centrist party to the mix, he's unlikely to shift course from the pro-settler policies of his current government
Under Netanyahu, construction reportedly began on nearly 6,900 settlement homes in the West Bank.
That's a bit less than what was started by Netanyahu's predecessor Ehud Olmert, but many of the new homes are deeper in the West Bank, the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said this week. Thousands more apartments are in various stages of planning, Peace Now said, predicting an "explosion" of settlement construction in coming years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his position on settlements Friday in an interview with Channel 1 TV.
"I don't believe that settlements are the root of the conflict, I don't believe that territorial dimensions are the root of the conflict; the root of the conflict was and remains the refusal to recognize the Jewish state within any border," Netanyahu said. "I am not in favor of a binational state. We need to reach a solution. I don't want to rule the Palestinians and I don't want them to rule us and threaten our existence."
"We believe the two-state solution is still possible, but Netanyahu and his current and upcoming coalition are killing this solution, they ... will be intensifying the buildings in the settlements, and they have no peace platform," Ishtayeh said.
The conflict with the Palestinians has largely been missing from Israeli political discourse this campaign season in Israel. The centrist Labor Party, which led peace talks with the Palestinians in the past, has shifted almost exclusively to domestic concerns, such as growing income gaps.
Just one party, The Movement, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has focused on peace talks. Livni has warned that Israel's existence could be threatened without a peace accord, yet her message has not gained much traction.
Palestinians believe hopes for their state are slipping further away with each new settlement home, and that partition of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River may soon no longer be possible.
Settlements are at the core of the paralysis in peace efforts talks since late 2008. Netanyahu refuses to freeze construction, rebuffing Abbas who says there is no point in negotiating while settlements steadily gobble up more of the occupied lands.
The standoff is likely to continue, though the Palestinians believe their diplomatic leverage has improved.
In November, the U.N. General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The vote, while largely symbolic, affirmed the 1967 frontier which the Palestinians want to be the base line for future border talks. Netanyahu, while willing to negotiate, won't accept the 1967 lines as a point of reference and wants to keep all of Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.
Some Palestinian officials hope Obama will now be tougher with Netanyahu after what they considered a disappointing first term.
The Americans "keep talking about negotiations and the need to restart the negotiations," Shaath said. "But what is needed is for the U.S. to pressure Israel to stop settlement activities and to go to real negotiations, to reach an agreement within six months."
Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah contributed to this report.