Something interesting is happening with the demographic debate. The right is fighting back.
Israelis on the left and in the center have long argued that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential because of changing demographic realities in the Land of Israel.
What exactly is the “demographic argument”? It is the claim that the population balance in Israel and the territories – between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River – is shifting, that Jews now constitute only a bare majority in these areas, and that in the very near future the Arab population, if one includes Israeli Arabs, will overtake the Jewish population.
What follows is that if a two-state solution is not forthcoming, the Palestinians may abandon their demand for a separate Palestinian state; instead, they will call for a single state with equal rights for all citizens. Since the Arabs will soon have a majority, this state – if established – will no longer be the homeland of the Jewish people. It will be at best a bi-national state, and at worst, a predominantly Arab state with a Jewish minority. Israel will resist such a state, of course (as it must); but even if it does not come into being, the manifest absurdity of a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority will simply make the occupation more untenable in the eyes of the world. And in the long term, a single state may become inevitable.
The response of the Israeli right to these claims has been to ignore them. But more recently, various demographers, academics, writers, and activists have begun to aggressively challenge the premises of the argument. A good summary of their counter arguments may be found in a recent article by David Goldman in Tablet. The major points made by Goldman and others are that the Palestinian population of the territories is smaller than claimed; the Palestinian birthrate is lower than claimed; the birthrate of Israeli Arabs is lower than claimed; and the birthrate of Jewish Israelis is higher than claimed. Therefore, Goldman says, the demographic balance will not worsen, and may in fact improve.
The very existence of these rejoinders is very interesting.
First, they indicate an awareness of the political weight of the demographic argument. It is one thing to hear Tzipi Livni and even Ehud Barak make these points, but when they are made by the President of the United States in his AIPAC address, it is time to listen.
Second, they are proof that on the demographic issue, Israel’s right is both desperate and out of touch. While I can’t evaluate their numbers (which are disputed by other demographers), this much is clear: Whether they are right or wrong MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. If a single state is established, and Arabs constitute 46% of the population rather than 52% of the population, so what? It will still not be a Jewish state. And if there is not a single state, an Arab population that is slightly smaller than now anticipated will not make the occupation more palatable to Israel’s allies.
By engaging its opponents in the demographic debate, the right has acknowledged the power of the demographic argument. For this it deserves credit. But in these difficult times, what is needed is a plan to address the issue. Sadly, instead of offering an answer, Israel’s right has simply fiddled with the demographic data and suggested that a few minor revisions to the numbers constitute a solution. But they do not. What the right is giving us is not an answer but the demography of fools.