( AP ) - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview published Thursday that creation of a Palestinian state is a vital Israeli interest, and that failure to reach a peace agreement could plunge Israel into a South African-style apartheid struggle.
Such a scenario, he said, would mean "the state of Israel is finished."
While Olmert has long said that the region's demography is working against Israel, the comments published in Haaretz were among his strongest as he prepares a skeptical public for the renewed peace talks launched at this week's conference in Annapolis, Md.
His reference to apartheid was particularly explosive because Israeli officials have long rejected any comparison to the racist system once in place in South Africa.
Olmert was en route back to Israel at midday Thursday, and his office could not immediately confirm the veracity of the published comments in Haaretz.
The Palestinians want to form an independent state in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem - areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Many Israeli demographers believe that with their higher birthrate, the Arab population of these areas, combined with Israel's own Arab population, could soon exceed the Jewish population in Israel.
Jews are a solid majority inside Israel proper, comprising roughly 80 percent of the population of 7 million. However, if the West Bank and Gaza are included, Arabs already comprise nearly half the population of the region.
To ensure that Israel can maintain its character as a democracy with a solid Jewish majority, Olmert supports a large withdrawal from the West Bank and parts of east Jerusalem, following Israel's pullout in 2005 from Gaza.
"The day will come when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights," Olmert told Haaretz. "As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished."
Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens have the right to vote. But the estimated 3.9 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not have Israeli citizenship.
In the interview, Olmert warned that Israel risks losing the support of influential American Jewish groups if it retains control of the Palestinians.
"The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us," he said, "because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents."
Olmert, a hard-liner early in his career, in recent years has repeatedly warned that Israel cannot remain both Jewish and democratic if it holds on to the West Bank and Gaza. But he has never used the South African analogy in public, though officials say he recently made the same argument in a closed meeting with lawmakers.
At the U.S. peace conference in Annapolis, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally relaunched peace talks, which broke down in violence seven years ago, and pledged to reach an agreement next year.