Analysis from Israel

A rational Palestinian policy needs demographic facts; but Israel hasn’t done the requisite research

In a Bloomberg interview earlier this month, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu observed that due to the stalled peace process, “the idea of taking unilateral steps is gaining ground, from the center-left to the center-right.” Prof. Efraim Inbar has a counter-proposal, succinctly encapsulated in the title of his May 15 column in Israel Hayom: “Let’s do almost nothing.”

I’m a longstanding fan of that approach. As I’ve argued in previous Jerusalem Post columns, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is analogous to the Cold War: It can’t currently be solved; it can only be managed until such time as circumstances change. And while unilateral moves could theoretically contribute to managing the conflict, every actual proposal I’ve seen, from both left and right, would entail major security and/or diplomatic risks in exchange for zero benefits (for details, see Jerusalem Post columnist Martin Sherman’s dissections of both left-wing plans – here, here and here – and right-wing ones).

Nevertheless, I’ve become convinced that “doing almost nothing” is impossible unless Israel first does one big something – convinces Israelis themselves that time is not on the Palestinians’ side, but on theirs. Inbar, the director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, makes a start on this in his article, pointing out the conflict’s declining importance to Arab countries dealing with more urgent problems; Israel’s deepening relationships with numerous countries worldwide that care little about the Palestinians; and the waning influence of “the political actors most obsessed with the Palestinian issue, the Israeli political Left and the Europeans.” But he fails to address the issue that concerns Israelis most: demographics.

As Netanyahu keeps repeating, Israelis “don’t want a bi-national state.” Thus as long as most Israelis believe Jews will shortly become a minority in the land west of the Jordan River (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza), they will continue to find the idea of unilaterally shedding areas with large Palestinian populations attractive. Otherwise, they fear, Palestinians will be able to destroy the Jewish state simply by demanding to vote in Israel – a demand that would surely win massive international backing.

In reality, I doubt unilateral withdrawal can solve this problem. After all, Israel withdrew every last soldier and settler from Gaza nine years ago, yet most of the world still considers Gaza “Israeli-occupied territory”; thus if Gazans were to demand the right to vote in Israel tomorrow, the “international community” would probably support that demand just as strongly as it would a similar demand from West Bank residents. But faced with a choice between certain disaster and hope of salvation, however slim, most people will opt for hope. Thus if Israelis are convinced that retaining the territories spells demographic disaster, even the dubious hope offered by unilateral pullouts will seem enticing.

Hence the only way to avert this fate is to tackle Israelis’ demographic fears head-on – i.e., to determine conclusively whether the Jewish majority west of the Jordan is endangered or not. And that means conducting independent research rather than simply accepting Palestinian statistics as fact.

Back in 2005, the American-Israel Demographic Research Group tried to do exactly that, but its groundbreaking study remains controversial. AIDRG concluded that the West Bank and Gaza actually contained a million fewer Palestinians than the Palestinian Authority claimed. Inter alia, it contended that official Palestinian statistics include tens of thousands of people who don’t actually live in the West Bank and Gaza and therefore shouldn’t be counted, and that PA Health Ministry records showed some 300,000 fewer Palestinian births from 1997-2003 than the number assumed in official PA statistics, which were based mainly on extrapolations from the (already inflated) 1997 census.

But while leading American demographers approved AIDRG’s methodology, leading Israeli demographers like Sergio Della Pergola and Arnon Soffer vehemently rejected it. Despite admitting that AIDRG had uncovered some errors too egregious to be ignored, like the double-counting of 210,000 East Jerusalem Arabs, they insisted the PA data was otherwise unimpeachable.

Personally, I find AIDRG’s work persuasive. I also see no reason to assume the PA wouldn’t lie about population statistics when it brazenly denies even well-documented historical facts (like Jesus being Jewish or the Second Temple’s existence). As for Soffer and Della Pergola, they have wrongly predicted imminent demographic doom for decades; thus I can’t see why their pronouncements merit great weight. Nevertheless, many Israelis would be reluctant to bet their country’s demographic future on a single, hotly contested study.

Moreover, AIDRG’s study was completed a decade ago. No demographer disputes that since then, Israeli Jewish birthrates have risen while Palestinian birthrates have fallen; so even if AIDRG were wrong, the demographic situation has presumably improved in the interim. The question is how much. While the Jewish fertility rate, currently 2.99, isn’t in dispute, the Palestinian rate definitely is: Some estimates show it converging rapidly on the Jewish rate; others believe the decline has been less drastic.

Even the significance of these changing birthrates is disputed. Della Pergola, for instance, claims the change is irrelevant, because the Jewish population is older than the Palestinian one, so Palestinians will eventually have enough extra women of fertile age to compensate for their falling birthrate. This factor certainly hasn’t been decisive inside Israel: Annual Jewish births soared from 94,000 to 125,000 over the decade ending in 2012, while Arab births stayed constant at around 40,000, even though Israeli Arabs are younger than Israeli Jews and have a higher (though declining) fertility rate to boot. In short, Arab births fell dramatically as a proportion of total births despite the population’s relative youth. But that doesn’t mean the same would be true once Palestinians are included; serious demographic analysis is needed to disprove or confirm Della Pergola’s contention.

Thus the most useful thing the government could do right now is commission a blue-ribbon demographic research study – one that doesn’t simply accept the PA’s figures as gospel truth and gives due weight to how rising Jewish and falling Arab birthrates affect old assumptions about Arab demographic momentum. For unless Israelis are convinced that their country isn’t facing imminent demographic doom, they are liable to be seduced into disastrous unilateral moves rather than heeding Inbar’s sensible advice.

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Why the status quo is the least bad option for Palestinians

Even among people who recognize that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently impossible, a growing number think that Israel must nevertheless quit the West Bank. Israel has a right to defend itself, their argument goes, but not by controlling another people for decades. Instead, it should withdraw to the “internationally recognized border” and protect itself from there, like other countries do.

Forget for a moment that the “internationally recognized border” is an arrant fiction. Forget as well that Israel remains in the West Bank precisely because defending itself from the 1949 armistice lines (the abovementioned fictional border) hasn’t worked very well in either the West Bank—from which Israel partially withdrew in the 1990s before returning the following decade—or the Gaza Strip.

That still leaves another uncomfortable fact: As long as genuine peace remains impossible, Israeli control of the West Bank, despite the undeniable hardships it causes Palestinians, remains the least bad alternative for the Palestinians themselves. As evidence, just compare the Israeli-controlled West Bank to Gaza, which has been free of both settlers and soldiers since August 2005. By almost any parameter, life in the former is far better.

Take, for instance, casualties. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, Israeli security forces killed 5,706 Palestinians in Gaza from September 2005 through August 2019. That’s almost eight times the 756 killed by Israeli security personnel and settlers combined in the West Bank during this period (no Gazans were killed by settlers since there are no settlers there).

Nor is this surprising. Israel’s control of the West Bank means that suspected terrorists can often be arrested rather than killed, though shootouts (with attendant collateral damage) do occur. But in Gaza, where Israel has no troops, it can’t arrest terrorists. Thus the only way to fight terror is through military action, which naturally produces many more casualties among both combatants and civilians.

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