Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 27, 2015

Crossing Israel's Demographic Divide

By David K. Shipler

            On some unknown day in some recent year, according to the most reliable estimates, the demographic scales were tipped by the death of an Israeli Jew or the birth of an Arab baby. The Jews lost their majority in the ancient, weary land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as the number of Arabs reached parity with the Jewish population, at 6.1 or 6.2 million each, depending on who’s counting. Every Israeli knew that the day was coming, but few noticed its stealthy arrival under the camouflage of their twilight war with the Palestinian Arabs, which has blurred visions of the future.
            Now what is to be done? That is the profound question for Israel, one that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems ill-equipped to address, despite his many years in office. It is the question that will lurk behind his speech to Congress on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, because the answer—whatever it may be—is equally critical to Israel’s survival as a democratic sanctuary.
            Will Israeli Jews, as a minority going forward, continue to dominate the Arab majority? Will the current hybrid of military occupation and hostile disengagement continue endlessly, or will an exit be found? Will that exit create two states side by side, and will they exist in accommodation or ongoing violence? Or will the “solution” be one state? And if so, what would that state look like with an Arab majority and a Jewish minority? Would all Arabs, including those from the West Bank and Gaza, enjoy equal citizenship in a full democracy, as Arab citizens of Israel technically do now? If so, they will outvote the Jews, and the character of Israel as a Jewish state will be lost. If not—if Arabs are consigned to a lesser status of limited rights—will the uneven relationship justify the hateful a-word, “apartheid,” already thrown about loosely by anti-Israel zealots?
            “One state,” is the solution of Itai Zar, a militant Jewish settler whose hilltop community I visited on the West Bank last November. But with no Arabs voting, he added. “If they will be citizens, we will be in the sea.”
            Shouldn’t Israel’s prime minister take a peek over the horizon at the scenarios? Netanyahu’s imagination, so acute at picturing Armageddon if Iran gets the bomb, is dulled when it comes to the results of policies inside his own country. He is busy closing off the two-state option by expanding Jewish settlements where a Palestinian state would be. And his right-wing political factions, gripped by an odd complacency about the population bomb, try to defuse it with wishful thinking that Palestinian Arabs are less numerous than Israeli demographers calculate.
            One set of figures breaks down this way: 6.1 million Jews in Israel, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, which also counts 1.7 million Arabs in Israel, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights as of 2013; 1.8 million Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza Strip, according to the CentralIntelligence Agency as of 2014; and 2.6 million Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, according to an Israeli Civil Administration tabulation published by Haaretz in 2013.
            The Times of Israel reports slightly different estimates, but they also add up to approximate parity: 6.218 million Jews overall, and 1.719 million Arabs in Israel, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 2014); 2.754 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 1.73 million in the Gaza Strip (Israel Defense Forces, 2014).
            Some figures are disputed by right-wing politicians who favor Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank, where, they argue, one million fewer Palestinians live than estimated by either Palestinian or Israeli authorities. But the numbers game misses the point, for even if the lower figure were correct—contrary to what Israeli demographers believe—it would only buy time, not resolution, given higher Arab birthrates. Annexation, or any arrangement that denies Palestinians a voice in their own governance, would be something much less than democracy, and Israel would be a changed country.
       Annexation lite, in which Israel would take all the West Bank except the heavily populated Palestinian areas, is supported by the Minister of the Economy, Naftali Bennett, who leads the extremist Jewish Home Party. But it would intensify terrorism and leave the issues unresolved. And a one-state federation, granting Palestinians more local control than they won in the 1993 Oslo Accords, would not satisfy their yearning for statehood.
            The fairest, most decisive alternative, a two-state solution, has seen its appeal eroded by both sides, which have radicalized each other since the fleeting hopefulness of Oslo. Only since those accords, and only to a bare majority of Israeli Jews, has a Palestinian state been acceptable, and then under such limits as to be unacceptable to Palestinians: It would be demilitarized, would exclude East Jerusalem, and would leave major Jewish settlements in Israeli hands.
The settlements have been a curse to Palestinians on the West Bank, who have watched the box-shaped buildings of new neighborhoods march across the lands supposedly earmarked for a Palestinian state. With the settlements have come bands of Israeli thugs who now inflict spasms of misery. In exchange for the stones that Palestinian youths throw at them, settlers throw stones at Palestinian children on their way to school, shoot teargas into classrooms, vandalize teachers’ cars, scrawl “Death to Arabs” on walls, cut and uproot olive trees, and deny Arab farmers access to their groves and vineyards. The Israeli government under Netanyahu mostly tolerates this, for settlers themselves are now in the Knesset and the Cabinet.
In turn, Israeli fears have been stoked by the Palestinian suicide bombings of 2000-2004, which provoked the construction of the long, meandering “separation wall” along much of the border between the West Bank and Israel. It scars the land and pens most Palestinians into economic deprivation. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 brought rockets, not peace. And in the face of the takeover there by Hamas, which is sworn to destroy the Jewish state, Israel has quarantined the territory by closing most access, intensifying hardship and hatred.
            Yet visionary and skillful leaders keep doors open. Slamming doors in your own face, to make sure you can’t go where you don’t want to go, deprives your own people of the choice down the road, where they might want to go for their own good. The current Israeli and Palestinian leaders are adept at slamming doors.


  1. Yup - It's a mess all right! And you are right - It will take strong, creative, courageous leadership on both sides. And something else, Dave - The Arabs must turn from their primitive inclination towards unending hatred, violence, retribution. The people who jumped up and down and cheered as our World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11 are an indication of a pretty hard wall to work with...
    But I appreciate your concerns and the questions you raise. They are key! Keep at it! Hopefully at some point, things will get better and surely Israel must remain a Jewish State - that is for sure! We never know what the future holds and what might make a significant change - down the line. We never know...
    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. And welcome back!! Very glad to read this.

  2. "If not—if Arabs are consigned to a lesser status of limited rights—will the uneven relationship justify the hateful a-word, “apartheid,” already thrown about loosely by anti-Israel zealots?"
    What word or words would use to describe the current situation? Why is "apartheid" not appropriate?