My heart goes out to the Palestinians. Not only because their entire world has become one of despair, immobility, bloodshed, disillusionment, crumbling infrastructure, crumbling history, crumbling horizons. There's also this:

Their leaders are even worse than ours.

Imagine the most pragmatic, the most moderate, the most persuasive, the most reasonable of their representatives, preparing for the first peace summit in recent memory, by attacking the very idea that Israel should be a Jewish state.

Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, declared Monday that the Palestinians will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Erekat was responding Monday to a series of strong statements by Ehud Olmert the day before, in which Olmert said "We won't hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state, this is a launching point for all negotiations," adding that "Whoever does not accept this, cannot hold any negotiations with me."

Erekat's response, speaking to Israel Radio, was clearer than one might have expected from a seasoned diplomat. So was the flat tone of rejection.

"No state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity," he said.

Never mind the fact that the Saudis, sponsors of a peace initiative which the Palestinians hope someday to parlay into an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, are a theocracy of such sectarian dimension that tourists are forbidden from entering the country with bibles, crucifixes, or items bearing the Star of David.

Never mind the fact that leftists the world over can live with the concept of explicitly Muslim states teaching the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other explicitly anti-Semitic texts, while arguing that the very idea of a Jewish state implies and, in fact, compels racism against non-Jews.

The bottom line is that if Palestinians want a state - an actual state, and not just a fantasy, not just trappings but actual indepence - they are going to have to reconcile themselves to the idea of an overtly Jewish neighbor.

The other paradigm, which has certainly gained currency in this decade, is to overpower Israel militarily, clearing away the foreign Zionist weeds so that a glorious, supremely non-Jewish Palestine may arise for the benefit of believing Muslims everywhere.

It's not going to happen. The world has had its fill of the Palestinians. The Palestinians have had their chance. The Iranians would love to help them, but at this point, even their brother Muslims will not stand for it.

It's not going to happen. The Palestinians are either going to have a state alongside a Jewish state, or they can choose to have no state at all.

Arafat knew this. That is why, in speaking to his own diaspora, he consistently held out hope for a Palestinian Right of Return, a way to overwhelm Israel demographically.

But that is not about to happen either. Arafat knew that as well.

These days, in the inept leadership sweepstakes, the graft and ineptitude and impotence has a new opposite number, the splintered and floundering upper echelons of Hamas. Once the most disciplined, well-run, canny organization in the Palestinian territories, Hamas has begun to misgovern Gaza the way Israel once did.

As Monday's disastrous memorial rally for Yasser Araft showed all too well, Hamas has begun to employ a deadly cocktail of apparent tolerance and spasms of brutality.

For Palestinians, Hamas was once a pillar of hope and a role model of probity. Now the best that Hamas can boast is that it cannot bring itself to recognize Israel. Even though, in proposing decades-long truces, it has signaled its willingness to sit down with the people it will not recognize, and negotiate with the people it will not recognize, and live alongside the people it will not recognize.

Here's the rub: There was a time when everything that happened, played into Hamas' hands. If Israel invaded, or refrained from invading, if it talked peace or made war, Hamas profited. Now those days are over. Time is no longer on Hamas' side. Nor on the side of Fatah.

The world has shown its willingness to let Palestinians suffer indefinitely. The world has shown its impatience with the glorious victories of Palestine, whether that means Qassam-butchering six cows about to give birth in a dairy barn on a Negev kibbutz, or raising an army which spends much of its firepower on fellow Palestinians, as in the memorial rally which left as many as eight dead in Gaza.

What matters, in the end, is not whether the Palestinians choose to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state. What matters is whether the Palestinians can live alongside a state which happens to be Jewish in character. That is to say, can they come to share the Holy Land with a state in which the dominant religion is not Islam.

Most Jewish Israelis, meanwhile, have come to accept the idea of an independent Palestinian state, in which the dominant religion will certainly be Islam.

If Palestinians cannot bring themselves to accept a Jewish Israel, there is always the default option. It may be unfair. It may seem that Palestinian suffering has been much too long in vain. But here it is: For Palestinians to choose not to accept a Jewish state, is to make the decisive choice for a future of statelessness.

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