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POPULATION-MIDEAST: Israel Fears the Womb More Than the Bomb

Peter Hirschberg

JERUSALEM, Jul 9 2008 (IPS) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has laid it out in the starkest possible terms for his fellow Israelis. If they do not relinquish control of the occupied territories, he has warned them, Israel will ultimately cease to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.

If Israel does not extract itself from the West Bank and a Palestinian state is not established alongside the Jewish state, he said in an interview late last year, Israel will find itself trapped in an apartheid-like reality. "The day will come when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights," he said. "As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished."

Olmert's conviction is driven by what many Israelis call "the demographic threat" – a scenario in which Arabs, due to their higher birth rates, outnumber Jews in the geographic area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which includes Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Once the demographic balance tilts against Israeli Jews, Olmert has warned, they will find themselves in a quandary in which a Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority. When that happens, he explained, Israel will be confronted by a battle it cannot win: Palestinians will abandon their demand for a separate, independent state in the West Bank and Gaza and instead will demand one-person, one-vote in a single state – a demand that will become irresistible within the international community, as happened with South Africa.

Demographics have always been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Leaders have brandished fertility rates as if they were loaded guns. Most famous for this was late Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, who coined the adage that the Palestinians' most potent weapon was the womb – a statement that increased skepticism amongst Israelis of his readiness to reach a peace agreement.

The mass flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the fledgling Jewish state during the 1948 Mideast war and the mass migration of Jews to Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s ensured a large Jewish majority in Israel. Today, almost all Israelis oppose the Palestinian demand for the "right of return" for refugees, believing this would see Israel swamped by millions of returning Palestinians, and would spell the end of the Jewish state.

The demographic reality changed again when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, which were inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, in the 1967 war, and subsequently began to build Jewish settlements there. Now, for Israel, the demographic implications of that settlement policy are coming home to roost.

Israel's population, including 270,000 settlers living in the West Bank, stands at close to 7.3 million. Of those, 5.5 million are Jews and another 300,000 are the spouses of Jews – most from the former Soviet Union who came during the period of mass immigration in the 1990s – who tend to identify themselves as part of the Jewish population. There are 1.4 million Arabs in Israel, the vast majority of them Muslims, who are Israeli citizens. Inside Israel, Jews therefore constitute a clear majority, making up almost 80 percent of the population.

But bring the West Bank and Gaza into the equation and the demographics change dramatically. Take the 3.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza and add them to the 1.4 million Arabs living in Israel, and you get the following result: 5.8 million Jews and 4.9 million Arabs living in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Now factor in significantly higher Arab birth rates and higher Jewish mortality rates, as a result of an older population, and the demographic tipping point is only a few years away, says Sergio DellaPergola, a professor of population studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of Israel's leading demographers. While the fertility rates in Israel are high for a developed country – on average there are 2.7 children per family – they do not come close to those in Gaza, where the average is around 5.5 children per family.

"We are almost at the point of demographic parity," DellaPergola told IPS. "It is changing every day in favour of the Arabs. It's dramatic. Arab natural growth is more or less twice that of Jews."

The demographics, he continues, have political implications. "Will Israel be a Jewish state? Or a bi-national state? You cannot ignore demography."

Some opponents of the demographic argument insist that the Palestinian figures are inflated. Even if they are, says DellaPergola, this would not dramatically alter the overall demographic trend towards an Arab majority and a Jewish minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Others, especially the Jewish settlers, put their faith in another wave of mass immigration, like in the 1990s when one million Jews from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel in the space of a decade. But the remaining large concentrations of Jews outside of Israel are in developed countries like the U.S. and the UK, and they are not about to exchange their comfortable lifestyles for a more precarious existence in the Middle East.

Traditionally, it has been the Israeli left which has championed the demographic argument, hoping it would persuade Israelis to relinquish the territories, forego settlements and support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it was only a few years ago, when some right-wing political leaders like Ehud Olmert were finally persuaded by the left's demographic equation, that Israel for the first time began to dismantle settlements.

Olmert, who for years had been a member of the Likud party, which led the biggest settlement drives in the West Bank and Gaza, emerged from the closet in a 2003 interview in the daily Haaretz newspaper, when he was serving as deputy prime minister in Ariel Sharon's government. A growing number of Palestinians, he said at the time, "are uninterested in a negotiated, two-state solution, because they want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one. From a struggle against 'occupation', in their parlance, to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle – and ultimately a much more powerful one. For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state."

This demographic awakening explains Olmert's enthusiastic support for the idea of withdrawing from Palestinian territories, and his determined backing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon's decision to pull all the settlers and the army out of Gaza in August 2005. "Olmert became convinced of the demographic trends when he was mayor of Jerusalem," says DellaPergola, who carried out studies for Olmert on demographic shifts in the city, which has a large Jewish and Arab population. "He then influenced Sharon."

Campaigning in the general election in 2006, Olmert made it clear that if elected he planned a unilateral pullout from much of the West Bank, along the lines of the Gaza withdrawal. But the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, which the Israeli public believes he badly mismanaged, and the incessant rocket fire by Palestinian militants from Gaza, despite the pullout, swayed Israelis against further unilateral moves and Olmert ditched his plan for a West Bank exit.

But while Israelis may have become disenchanted with unilateralism, that doesn't mean the demographics have changed. And Olmert, even if he has put his plan on ice, remains a leading proponent of the demographic argument.

In the interview he gave late last year, and which was published on the 60th anniversary of the UN decision to partition Palestine, he spelled out, in dramatic terms, what would happen the moment Jews became a minority. "The Jewish organisations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents," he warned.

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