The ticking Palestinian bomb that Israel can't defuse

An exploding birthrate means that Arabs will outnumber Jews in Greater Israel next year. How long can Israel continue to rule a "minority" population larger than its Jewish one?

Published December 19, 2001 8:39PM (EST)

Just when the fear of roadside ambushes and suicide bombings is crippling daily life here and the security establishment forecasts more Palestinian attacks in the near future, an Israeli demographer shows up with more bad news: Even without war, in a few decades there may be no Israel to speak of.

In 2020, Jews will be a distinct minority in what they call "Greater Israel," the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing both the internationally recognized state of Israel and the occupied territories, comprising the West Bank and Gaza. According to recent predictions, Arabs will form 58 percent of the total population, up from 49.5 percent today. In Israel proper, Jews will remain a majority but their percentage will drop from 73 percent today to 68 percent in two decades. Counter-terrorism and military raids may work to stave off short-term Palestinian threats, but the demographic equation puts in doubt the survival of the entire Zionist enterprise -- particularly if Israel holds on to the occupied territories.

"If we continue with the status quo, with no decision-making, we have only another 15 years," warned Arnon Soffer, the author of a report on Israeli demography that made a big splash this summer. "If we talk about Greater Israel, we're a minority from this year on."

Today, the numbers of Jews and non-Jews (including Asian and Eastern European workers) are running neck and neck, at just under 5 million each. But the difference in fertility rates between Arabs and Jews is about to topple that precarious balance. While the average Jewish Israeli woman has 2.5 children in her lifetime, her Muslim Arab counterpart in Israel and the West Bank has five children, and in Gaza, one of the most densely populated strips of land in the world, a woman typically has seven. (The fertility rate of Christian Arabs is similar to that of Jews.)

"There is something hateful in counting heads and considering them a threat," said Avishai Margalit, an Israeli political philosopher, in a phone interview recently. "But the reality is that we are now in a tribal war, so you count who's on your side and who's against you."

In the ongoing competition between the Arab and Jewish national movements, the number of births, arrivals and departures may matter more than the number of people killed in skirmishes and terrorist attacks. Jewish immigration is down by roughly 28 percent compared to last year. This is partly because of insecurity created by the intifada and partly because in preceding years, years of economic distress in Russia, immigration was unusually high, according to the Jewish Agency. Unless a new wave of anti-Semitism dislodges Jews in Europe and in America, immigration will dry up almost entirely because the Jewish population abroad is becoming more scarce in countries like Russia, and generally older and more assimilated than in the past.

At the same time, a quiet Palestinian exodus is under way, as families with connections abroad and enough pocket money leave to seek safety and work overseas. But the number of departing Arabs is not high enough to assuage Israeli fears of a demographic takeover. Palestinians may be fleeing, but in the long run, the wealthiest and brightest Israelis will leave too, predicts Soffer. A veteran demographer at Israel's Haifa University, Soffer cites the general deterioration of life in Israel, which includes the growth of relatively poor, anti-Zionist sectors of society (ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs will form 50 percent of the population in 2020), the worsening of daily violence, economic depression, and ethnic strife. His predictions are based on the example of Jerusalem, which young professional Israelis are deserting for all those same reasons: too many religious people, too many Arabs, too many bombs and too few jobs.

And in the Holy Land's maternity wards, Jews will be outpaced. "Time is running out!" warned Soffer, a spry 66-year-old who relishes his position as the nation's Cassandra.

The Israeli obsession with demographic numbers is not new. The 19th century ideology known as Zionism aimed to provide a nation-state for the Jews -- a country where Jews, being a majority, would feel safer than as a scattered, often-persecuted people in the Diaspora. "Population size was critical to the Zionist enterprise," said Calvin Goldscheider, who holds a joint appointment as professor of sociology and professor of Judaic studies at Brown University. "They saw strength in numbers. They could only do certain things if they were numerous, and they were concerned about how many Arabs there were. British policy [during the Mandate] was to control the relative proportions of Jews and Arabs, but Jews objected to this because it would mean they would be a permanent minority."

The United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947 and the subsequent War of Independence changed that. A large piece of Mandatory Palestine became a Jewish-dominated state, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who either lost their land and homes and became refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring Arab states, or were relegated to an inferior class of citizenship and became known as Israeli Arabs. Although Israel, striving to be both Jewish and democratic, gave the Israeli Arabs voting rights and required that they pay taxes, they were systematically denied equal access to land, jobs and education -- a situation that continues to this day.

Later, Israel strengthened its numbers -- and viability -- by encouraging massive Jewish immigration from neighboring countries in the Middle East in the 1950s, and in the 1990s again by flinging its doors wide open to hundreds of thousands of Jews and their relatives from the former Soviet Union. To this day, anyone who can prove that their grandmother or grandfather was Jewish is welcomed into Zion -- a sign of Israel's desperate need to stay ahead in the race against Arab fertility and a sore point with Orthodox Jews, who insist Jewishness can only be transmitted by a Jewish mother or acquired through conversion.

Goldscheider thinks that talk of a demographic threat to Israel is irresponsible hysteria. He points out that the proportion of Arabs in sovereign Israel has remained relatively constant at about 20 percent since the 1970s, despite their greater natural increase rates, thanks to Jewish immigration.

When immigration flagged in the late 1950s, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, began to talk about "internal immigration," urging people to have more babies. "The thinking was, 'We'll outbreed them,'" said Goldscheider. (A "Ben-Gurion" prize was introduced to reward the mother of the year but, ironically, the winners were always Muslim Arabs, and the prize was eventually scrapped.)

Numbers are also key to understanding Israel's positions on peace with Palestinians today. Realization of the "right of return," for example, by potentially 3.7 million Palestinians registered as refugees with the United Nations would signal the abrupt end of Israel as a Jewish-dominated state. In addition to being impractical (most of the houses Palestinians deserted in 1948 were destroyed or taken over by Jews), it is seen by both left-wing and right-wing Israelis as an unacceptable demand, simply code for the destruction of Israel.

On the other hand, divesting Israel of the territories it gained in the 1967 Six Day War, where roughly 3 million Palestinians live, is seen as a priority by part of the Israeli public. The need to get rid of territory on which Arabs live so that Israel could remain a Jewish-dominated, democratic state was one of the underlying issues driving left-wing Israelis like Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin to draft and sign the Oslo Accords in 1993. "The point was: Give back territory to save Israel from demography," said Sari Nusseibeh, one of the chief Palestinian negotiators at the time and a moderate intellectual who was recently made Yasser Arafat's diplomatic representative in East Jerusalem.

But for Israeli right-wingers, territory has always been more important than democracy in the competing list of Israeli ambitions. (Nahum Barnea, a veteran Israeli columnist, sums up the differences between the two major Israeli political factions pithily: "Likud is geographic, while Labor is demographic.")

"People on the right usually evade the issue [of Arab numerical superiority], say the statistics are wrong or entertain Zeevi-like fantasies and want to kick Arabs out," said political philosopher Margalit, referring to Rechavam Zeevi, the far-right minister who was assassinated this fall. Influenced by demographic projections like Soffer's, Zeevi proposed to expel or "transfer" Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to neighboring Arab states. Other right-wingers, repelled by the ethnic cleansing connotations of the transfer solution, believe in hanging onto Greater Israel by increasing Jewish settlements in the territories and granting non-Jews limited rights. This is where the idea of autonomy within an Israeli framework came from, or in today's terms, the idea of an emasculated "Palestinian state" whose borders, roads and economic life would be controlled by Israel. It is the scenario preferred by current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and, basically, a continuation of the status quo.

"It doesn't matter how many people you rule over. France colonized countries larger than itself. You just send more soldiers to control the colonized populations," said Goldschieder. "Whether you occupy 3, 4 or 5 million Arabs is a security issue, not a political problem, as long as they don't have political rights," concurred Margalit.

But for Soffer and many other Israelis, if Israeli Jews start lording it over a population significantly larger than their own, the situation will smack of apartheid: "This is a South Africa situation with a minority of whites controlling others," he said, apparently more worried by the negative parallels international public opinion might draw than mindful of the moral argument against abusing people's rights, regardless of their numbers. "Voting rights is not the only thing that matters. We will be flooded by others. We already have a hard time being both Jewish and democratic. I cannot say that we have solved this problem yet."

Israeli Arabs and Palestinians are already subject to various forms of apartheid -- on the roads, at checkpoints and in the job market. But Soffer fears that pent-up frustration against state discrimination and growing Palestinian nationalism among Israel's Arab minority will express itself in the future in a large unified voting bloc that will undermine Israel's political stability. On war-and-peace issues, some of the 11 Israeli-Arab representatives in the Knesset already have begun showing more solidarity with their Palestinian brothers than loyalty toward the Jewish state. (Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Knesset, is currently on trial for calling this year for the continuation of the armed intifada against Israel at a meeting attended by members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamic guerrilla group and one of Israel's sworn enemies.) In another few years, as the representation of Israeli Arabs grows, "they will be able to decide whether the state of Israel should be a Jewish-Zionist state or whether it should turn into a state of all its citizens," warned Soffer in his study.

Soffer also predicts that the demographic boom will turn the security situation into an even bigger nightmare than it is now. Increased numbers of Palestinians living in abject poverty in the West Bank and Gaza will feed radical movements and multiply Palestinian attempts to sneak into Israel to work or commit violent acts, he warns. If Gaza's population doubles in 20 years as it is expected to, while its already overburdened infrastructure continues to collapse, "then one has to expect a decline in the standards of living and despondency. Such an embittered population is dangerous and it is reasonable to assume it will turn to extremist measures, from terror to holy war," wrote Soffer in his latest study. (Palestinian population growth is already a problem for the Palestinian Authority, whose limited resources, corruption and inefficiency prevent it from addressing society's growing needs, thereby opening a breach for Islamic charities run by radical groups like Hamas.)

Strangely, given the strong resonance that numbers have in Israeli minds, the demographic equation has not been a major component of Palestinian strategy against Israel until recently. True, Arafat has been quoted in the past referring to Palestinian wombs as his people's best weapon, and Palestinian mothers have been known to call their children "Jihad" (Holy War), anticipating their little ones' sacrifices for the Palestinian struggle. But Palestinian birthrates are not a conscious expression of patriotism. In traditional Arab societies, "you're a better man if you have more children," explained Nusseibeh. "It has nothing to do with Israel." Even Soffer agrees: "I don't think when they go to bed, they think of Palestine. It's the prestige of having a large family that matters."

According to Goldscheider, the decline of Muslim fertility in the 20th century was actually "delayed indirectly by Israeli policies that segregated Arabs and gave them very few incentives to have fewer children. Palestinians have a very high fertility rate because they are extraordinarily poor," he said. "They have no jobs except for the work doled out by Israel, their women are subservient, the schooling system is bad and there are no benefits to having fewer children. They have children so they can work and support the family. In Jewish Israel, there are plenty of reasons to have fewer kids: You can have a bigger apartment, buy more goods, invest in your children's education."

(That said, bedrooms and politics do sometimes mix. Jewish Israeli fertility rates are notably higher than in the West due to religious and ideological factors, said Soffer. Ultra-Orthodox women, encouraged by their rabbis and husbands to enlarge their pious tribe, have an average of seven children -- just like Gazan women. Settlers, who believe it is their duty to people the occupied territories with ever more Jews, also have huge families despite the economic incentives to have fewer children in a modern society. Even among secular Jews, "you hear people say that we have to compensate for the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust or that we should have more children because we live in a hostile region," said Soffer.)

But Palestinians are starting to catch on. "More and more now, you hear people say, 'We're going to win by numbers,'" said Nusseibeh. In a Palestinian textbook published in 2000, 11th-grade students are told that "the increase of fertility rates is a demographic weapon that can be used in resisting the occupation. It plays a positive role in the Arab-Israeli conflict." Although Nusseibeh himself has used demographic arguments to pressure Israel into negotiations for a long time ("I always assumed it was a good weapon -- better than guns, certainly"), he said Palestinians were not interested in numbers and thought him crazy. "I was criticized by my colleagues after I was quoted in Newsweek in the early 1980s saying, 'Let them annex us.' I wrote: Annex us and very quickly we'll turn Israel into an Arab or bi-national state. But other Palestinians said: We don't want to be annexed, we want a Palestinian state."

According to people who knew him well, the late Faisal Husseini, Nusseibeh's predecessor as the head of Orient House, the Palestinian office representing Arafat in Jerusalem, was also fond of saying: "It's not Israel who is giving us a state, it's we Palestinians who are giving them one. If Israelis don't give us a state, they'll lose theirs."

But Palestinian calculations have gone beyond the call for an independent state in the past few years. As disaffection toward the Palestinian Authority -- a Palestinian state in embryo -- grew among ordinary Palestinians and intellectuals, some Palestinians began reconsidering their whole strategy, according to Nusseibeh, and calling instead for the right of return. "The two slogans during the first intifada were freedom and independence. Return wasn't a major concern. At Madrid [where the two-state solution was first officially proposed, in 1991] people knew return was not in the cards. But people got second thoughts when Arafat came back from Tunis and they saw what he was like, what the Palestinian Authority was like," said Nusseibeh. "Palestinians got the worst of two worlds: Aspects of the occupation still prevailed because of the limits on freedom of movement; at the same time they saw the worst aspects of the Palestinian Authority: corruption, inefficiency, instances of brutality."

While Arafat still publicly supports the idea of peace based on two separate states, the competing idea of a bi-national state and the call for the return of refugees (with the understanding that Arabs will vastly outnumber Jews) have become increasingly popular among Palestinians radicalized by the failure of the 8-year-old Oslo Accords to significantly improve their lot and by 15 months of brutal, costly intifada. People like Nusseibeh who dare speak out against the return of refugees today are considered traitors, while those who trumpet the issue become instant political heroes. The shift away from a two-state solution -- which most analysts agree is the only practical blueprint for peace -- is not final, however. "It depends on how things develop on the ground," said Nusseibeh. "If Sharon slices [the occupied territories] up and creates four bits of Palestine, Palestinians will say it's obviously not good enough," and they will demand the whole pie.

On the Israeli side, numbers have also been corralled into supporting the latest fad: the building of a country-long fortified fence that would separate Israelis from their Palestinian neighbors and protect them from the hordes of terrorists pressing at their gates. The more numerous and hostile Arabs there are, the more urgent the need for the wall, says Soffer, who apologizes for "talking about walls at the beginning of the 21st century" with the standard argument that "unfortunately, Israel isn't in Europe." While he crisscrosses the country these days, meeting with ordinary people and decision-makers, Soffer, who describes himself as "both a dove and a hawk," does more than spread alarm. Along with ambitious politicians who have jumped on the issue in the hope of challenging Sharon, Soffer has become one of the major advocates of "unilateral separation," an idea first discussed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "Never in my life did I get such positive feedback," said Soffer, whose monograph is now in its third edition. "People are frustrated. They feel that they are in a cul-de-sac. But I'm coming with a threat and a solution."

Combining the perspectives of Israel's political left and right, unilateral separation appeals to a majority of Israelis who feel that the idea of Greater Israel and real peace are both Utopian: Israel cannot sign an end-of-conflict deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, nor can it continue occupying the West Bank and Gaza and ruling over millions of Arabs. Therefore, Israel must pull out, regroup and physically protect its new borders -- a literal implementation of the "Iron Wall" against Arab hostility called for in 1923 by Ze'ev Jabotinsky, founder of revisionist Zionism and the spiritual father of right-wing Israeli leaders from Menachem Begin through Ariel Sharon.

"I prefer to be in a very strong, small ghetto than exposed to Palestinian threats," said Soffer, summing up the feelings of many. "Of course, the ghetto can't be too small and shouldn't become smaller and smaller. I need to defend my area."

But the problem is: Where do you plant the fence? Whether Israel should carve out East Jerusalem to get rid of Arab-dominated neighborhoods, transfer pockets of land in the north populated by Israeli Arabs to Palestinian sovereignty, surrender strategic assets like the Jordan Valley and evacuate settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are still highly divisive political questions that numbers alone can't answer. Goldscheider, the American professor, dismissively sums up the arguments of those who advocate building a fence: "All the good reasons for separation and giving Palestinians their own state -- political, moral, military reasons -- don't work [in convincing Israelis to end the occupation], so you might as well try neutral statistical arguments and say: 'Watch out, they'll outbreed us.' But that's not the real issue. The real issue is statehood and empowerment, Palestinians having control over their own lives." And to address that, diplomacy, not demography, is the only answer.

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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