Published in The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle
Upon returning from the Annapolis Conference, where Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pledged to reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008, the Prime Minister warned that failure to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
His reasoning is based on his fear regarding the so called “demographic threat” to Israel from “a faster growing Palestinian population.” Since 2003, he has been warning that “ if a Palestinian state was not established, in just another few years, more and more Palestinians will say: “There is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea and they would want the right to vote” and “then Israel would face a South African struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”
Such possible scenario is difficult to contemplate, because the residents of the West Bank and Gaza are not citizens of Israel, but residents of internationally disputed areas with Jordanian and Egyptian passports. These areas were never legally annexed to Israel. I cannot recollect an example in recent history where the international community forced a sovereign state to grant non-citizens the right to vote, regardless of the individual or collective wishes of its citizens.
The question still remains whether Israel should be afraid of being demographically overwhelmed and swallowed by the Palestinian population in the next 15 years.
Recently published demographic research seems to suggest that this fear has been based on fraudulent data and highly questionable predictions from the Palestinian Authority’s Central Bureau of Statistics in 1997.
In 1997, the bureau projected that the Arab population west of the Jordan River would, by 2015, outnumber the Jewish population. It pegged the 1997 Arab population of the West Bank at 2.4 million, Gaza at 1.43 million and the Israeli Arab population at 1.33 million. for a total of 5.16 million Arabs West of the Jordan River. This number was, to Zionist eyes, ominously close to Israel’s Jewish population at the time of 5.24 million.
These Arab population numbers were immediately adopted by such prominent Israeli demographers as the University of Haifa’s Arnon Soffer and the Hebrew University ‘s Sergio Della Pergola, who have both warned that by 2020 Jews will make up only between 40 and 46 percent of the overall population of Israel, plus the territories west of the Jordan River. Largely in reaction to these statistics, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, at the urging of Ehud Olmert, decided to unilaterally withdraw the Israeli army and Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005.
The sky-is-falling crowd got a surprise in January at the Herzilya Conference with the release of a new study by California researcher Bennet Zimmerman and Israeli strategist Yoram Etinger. It questioned the PA’s 1997 findings, citing inaccuracies in data collection and incorrect assumptions that led to predictions that ignored Arab emigration and overstated the Arab birth rate.
Their new study concluded that the Jews currently constitute 67 percent of the population west of the Jordan River, excluding Gaza. Jews would be 60 percent of the population if Gaza is included.
In 1948, the Jewish population in Palestine was only 48 percent.
The new study suggests there are only 1.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, and not 2.4 million as the Palestinians claim. Zimmerman and Etinger assert that the PCBS totals include double-counts like the 230,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem, and the 105,000 Palestinians who received blue Israeli cards in 1997, who were already included in the Israeli-Arab population. In addition, the data collected by the Palestinians includes 325,000 Palestinians who reside abroad. This is akin to counting the 800,000 Israeli natives who now live in the United States as part of Israel’s population.
The 300,000 Palestinian births that were predicted never occurred, and the 236,000 people predicted to move into the PA
territory between 1997 and 2003 never materialized. During this time, 74,000 people left PA areas, likely prodded by Chairman Yasser Arafat’s corruption and conflict with Israel.
The new study suggests that the demographic establishment and the Israeli government prefer to also ignore the quick drop in natural growth and fertility rate among the Palestinians. According the UNRWA, the Arab fertility rate in the West Bank has plummeted from 5.4 children per woman to 3.24, while the Jewish fertility rate rose to 2.7 children per woman. Among the reasons for the drop are the introduction of family planning with 52 percent of married Arab women using birth control, a rising median age of marrying couples, higher divorce rates, better education and careers for women and the move from villages to cities. This falloff is consistent with the one taking place throughout the Muslim world.
Inside Israel, immigration from France and the former Soviet Union, coupled with a rise in the Jewish birthrate, kept the Israeli Arab population stable at 20 percent for the last dozen years. Inside the “Green Line,” or Israel’s pre-June 1967 borders, Jews make up 76 percent of the population and other non-Jewish immigrants account for another 4 percent.
Inside the city of Jerusalem, Jews make up 68 percent of the population, while the city’s fertility rate among the Jewish and Arab population is equal for the first time at 3.9 children per woman. Many researchers believe that the Jewish population in Jerusalem and inside Israel is even higher, because the Israeli Central Statistics Bureau include thousands of non-citizen Palestinian residents in the population data.
Thus, it seems that the Jewish majority is assured to continue
well into the future inside Israel, Jerusalem and west of the Jordan River.
Tilting the scales
For any Israeli government to give up the strategic hills of the West Bank, thereby exposing the country’s main population centers to daily missile attacks from a future Palestinian state, and to divide Jerusalem, including the Old City, in order to get rid of the Arab neighborhoods based on unsubstantiated fears seems incredible and irresponsible.
For any government to rely on the data provided by the Palestinian Authority, which is notorious for its revisionist view of Jewish (and Arab) history, is naïve and self- destructive. It is disheartening to think that the PA’s propaganda has again been successful in manipulating Israel’s public and political debate and in psychologically intimidating the Israeli government into capitulating to the Arab agenda.
The ongoing negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which includes discussing the future of the Arab refugees who fled in the 1948 and 1967 wars to the surrounding Arab countries, will only hasten the nightmare scenario Olmert fears most.
Allowing 3 million Palestinians — the 650,000 refugees from 1948 and their descendants — to immigrate into Israel would bring an end to the Jewish state demographically, and, thankfully, no Israeli government would agree to this. However, even agreeing to let these refugees emigrate to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank will upset the demographic scale west of the Jordan River.
Historically, being numerous is not one of the Jewish people’s notable characteristics. To argue that a demographic threat justifies territorial withdrawals is similar to arguing that Israel should disband the country, close its doors and leave the Middle East based on being surrounded by numerous hostile Arabs on all sides. In response to this baseless fear, how do we explain Israel’s ability to survive and even flourish in the Middle East with a population of just 5.4 million Jews surrounded by more than 300 million Arabs?