RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Ramallah, the bustling heart of Palestinian life in the West Bank, is rapidly becoming surrounded by Israeli settlements, from the trailer homes of hilltop outposts to the cookie-cutter apartment buildings on the nearby outskirts of Jerusalem.
It's a familiar picture throughout the West Bank, and as the Jewish and Palestinian populations become more entangled, the internationally backed solution of separating them into two states is looking increasingly difficult.
With settlement-building continuing and peace efforts stalled, Israelis in growing numbers are worrying that a partition may soon become impossible -- and some Palestinians have concluded that a single state for both peoples is in their interest.
"The conflict is not far from the point where it will no longer be possible to carry out a two-state solution," said Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli political analyst.
It has become a matter of intense discussion on talk shows and editorial pages, supplying ammunition to Israeli peace campaigners who say a pullout from the West Bank and Gaza should be framed not as a compromise but as a necessity. The alternative, they say, will be an Israel swamped by Arabs, torn between giving them the vote and losing Jewish dominion over the country, or denying them the vote and standing accused of emulating apartheid South Africa.
That concern spurred at least two efforts by moderate politicians to negotiate unofficial peace deals with the Palestinians. The most recent plan, known as the Geneva Agreement, foresees Israel giving the Palestinians nearly all the territories it captured in 1967 and dismantling most settlements.
That agreement has no legal standing and has been vehemently condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But it's "perhaps the last chance for a fair division of the land between Jews and Palestinians before the creation of a Palestinian majority west of Jordan that will effectively make the country binational," Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin, a former Justice Minister, wrote Tuesday in the daily Maariv.
In a single state, Israel's 1.3 million Arab citizens combined with the 3.5 million Palestinians would soon outnumber Israel's 5.2 million Jews because of their higher birthrate.
Most Palestinians still hope for a separate Palestinian state, but some no longer feel any need to make such a compromise. They argue that the single-state idea gives them leverage, sending Israelis the message that if they do not pull out of the entire West Bank and Gaza soon, they could lose the whole country.
"Down the road you have to deal with a binational state coming your way," Palestinian political analyst Ali Jerbawi said. "It might take another 50 years, 70 years. Whatever."
To keep Israel Jewish and democratic, says Avraham Burg, Israel's dovish former Parliament speaker, "I'm for the amputation of land, rather than for the castration of the Jewish majority or democracy."
Meanwhile, the Israeli settlement drive that began after the 1967 Mideast war moves ahead -- with the settler population growing to 220,000 last year, up 5.7 percent from 2001, according to Israeli government figures. Roughly the same number of Palestinians have moved to Israel since 1967, according to Israeli estimates.
The barrier Israel is building to keep out suicide bombers could be seen as an act of separation that keeps the two-state option alive, but instead of sticking to the pre-1967 border, it dips into the West Bank to accommodate Jewish settlements and is seen by Palestinians as a land grab.
Hemi Shalev, a leading political analyst, wrote in Friday's Maariv newspaper that Israel's military chief of staff also sees the Palestinians shifting away from the two-state idea.
According to Shalev, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon fears that Palestinian leaders who favor a two-state solution are losing ground, and that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat himself is willing to sit back and wait for Israel to buckle under the weight of a growing Palestinian population.
Jerbawi says Israel should be given an ultimatum -- agree on a Palestinian state in six months or the Palestinians will dump the idea and switch to seeking Israeli annexation.
Israel would surely object to giving its new Palestinian citizens the vote, but eventually would have to yield, he said.
Although official Palestinian policy remains a two-state solution, Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, says a shared infrastructure of roads, utilities and water already binds the settlers and the Palestinians.
"Most people want a two-state solution ... but it's not happening," he said. "One state would solve a lot of issues."
On the fringes are Israelis who would simply expel the Palestinians or, conversely, accept a binational state. But the vast majority see both options as nightmarish and unworkable.
"There has not been one case in which a conflict between two national movements has been solved by a binational state," political analyst Shlomo Avineri said.
Besides continuing violence, he said, every detail of the binational state would bring a challenge -- "Every street name, every day of celebration, every program in school."
In the end, it will be very difficult for Israel to dismantle settlements and evacuate most of the West Bank, as it almost certainly would have to do under any final peace deal, he said. But it will be far less painful than ending the Jewish state, he said.