The Arab-Israeli conflict has long been of interest to policymakers and scholars across the globe. Ironically, this fascination and the dispute’s heavy politicization have caused simple and factual aspects of the conflict to become abstruse. The demographic balance between Israelis and Palestinians is one such example, despite its significance to both peoples.
Israel’s inceptive purpose was to be a state and homeland for the Jews. Hence, in order to maintain that purpose, it must sustain within it a majority of Jewish citizens. This original imperative is a leitmotif in many of Israel’s policies both internally and abroad. Policies aimed at encouraging birth rates through child benefits have been in place for decades. Israeli state-funded organizations operate around the globe to implement programs aimed at encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel. At its land borders, the erection of modern fences and the enforcement of tough entry criteria into Israel have received widespread popular support.
The demographic question is most saliently recognized in the context of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Yasser Arafat, longtime head of the Palestinian Liberation Movement, said that his best weapon against Zionism is the “Palestinian woman’s womb.” Meanwhile, many on Israel’s political right argue the opposite: demography is in fact tipping in the other direction, modernity is leading to a decline in Arab birthrates, and time, therefore, is actually working on Israel’s side.
Looking into the future, it’s hard to know which side will be correct, particularly in light of the fact that when looking at history, numerous expert predictions never panned out. One such example is a 1987 New York Times article by Thomas Friedman. In it, he argued that by the early 2000s, Palestinians would outnumber Israelis. His prediction never came to be, and neither did those of many other regional and international experts. Over time, these bungled predictions have had a “crying wolf” effect on Israelis, creating deep skepticism of warnings of a looming demographic cataclysm.
Predicting future demography isn’t a simple task. When analyzing why previous attempts were off the mark, it’s important to realize that real life holds unexpected factors that can grow to become centrally important, changing previous trend lines and entirely altering the bottom line assumptions of any given forecast.
Life expectancy is one such example. Most demographic predictions rely primarily on child birth rates. Yet, between 2000 and 2010, life expectancy for Israelis increased by approximately three years on average – although this growth wasn’t homogenous, as it correlated with factors like family size and income levels. While Israeli Jews registered a 3.2-year increase in life expectancy over that period, the life expectancy of Israeli Arabs only grew by two years. This divergence is equivalent to a 2 percent increase in the Jewish population of Israel over the decade, equating to the arrival of 128,000 new immigrants.
Other unexpected developments that have nullified past demographic predictions include the influx of a million Soviet Jews into Israel in the decade following the Soviet Union’s collapse and the unexpected shift in demography that took place when Israel fully disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005. This event led to the “deduction” of some 1.7 million Palestinians residing in Gaza from the demographic balance in Israel. All of these changes have brought unexpected longevity to Israel’s Jewish majority, despite lower birthrates among Israeli Jews themselves.
While other similar-scale waves of immigration to Israel are not anticipated in the future, other demographic game-changers remain possible. For example, Israel currently allows its citizens to vote only when physically in-country. But according to a 2012 Knesset report, somewhere between 230,000 and 750,000 Israeli citizens reside abroad, not counting the number of Israeli citizens traveling outside of the country at any given moment. If Israel’s voting laws mirrored those of the American and British systems and allowed Israelis to vote from abroad, then that policy alone would have a significant impact on the overall demographic balance of Israel.
Another important subject relates to Israel’s Arab citizens. About 1.8 million Israelis are ethnically Arab, with some identifying themselves politically as Palestinian. In most demographic analyses, which base entirely on ethnicity, this large population is counted on the Palestinian side of the calculus. However, geographically, these are Israelis who will remain in Israel under any future scenario involving a partition. Here lies an argument in favor of a civil re-framing of the demographic equation. Such a plan must count both the number of Israeli and Palestinian citizens, rather than simply include an ethnic count of Jews and Arabs. If the demographic discourse were to evolve in that vein, that development alone would pose a dramatic change to the current demographic calculus in the region.
Whatever happens in the future, demography today remains a key political issue for Israelis. In successive surveys, many Israelis indicate that they do not want the 2.8 million or so West Bank Palestinians to be inducted as citizens in Israel. At a recent Washington summit, Israel’s Defense Minister stated, “Israel does not want to govern the Palestinians.”
On the Israeli left, many call for immediate action toward partition, fearing that in the long term, Israel will become a bi-national or Arab-majority state. The low birthrates of Jews compared with those of Arabs, they argue, will bring about the end of Israel in its current form. The Israeli right, meanwhile, prefers the status quo, believing trends are gradually changing in favor of Israel.
The truth seems to lie somewhere in between. While future demographics are hard to accurately predict, one thing the data does indicate is that no watershed line is expected to be crossed in coming years. The Palestinian populace in the West Bank is growing at a higher rate than the Israeli populace in the same territory, though at a decreasing rate that will not imminently tip the scale. On the other hand, demographic trends are not definitively in Israel’s favor. The Palestinian population overall in the region is growing at steadily higher rates than is the Israeli population.
In policy terms, even if the “demographic bomb” isn’t about to explode, defusing the bomb means putting in place policies that promote a de-facto partition between Israelis and Palestinians, even if a comprehensive political resolution to the conflict can’t be reached. Such policies should aim to consolidate Israeli citizens into territories that are likely to remain part of Israel under any future agreement, while Palestinians continue to grow and expand in areas that will likely comprise Palestine. The haste promulgated by demographic alarmists is largely unwarranted, but there are numerous convincing arguments for partition, and now is a good time to start.
For 2015: http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Poll-finds-nearly-half-Israelis-feel-2-state-solution-is-dead-424970 (Not a majority, but a plurality)