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MIRAGE OF PALESTINIAN STATEHOOD
Demographic stakes

By Youssef Courbage

Le Monde Diplomatique, April, 1999

 

In 1967 Abba Eban, at that time Israel's foreign minister, observed that Israel's character was "conditioned in the first place by its demographic composition, the standard and unity of its population". Thirty years later, population projections do not augur well for Israel's stability: while the Palestinians are busy publishing figures and forecasts - in particular the results of the census they carried out in 1997 - the Israelis are maintaining a discreet silence over their demographic future, quietly dropping projections from their statistical reviews.

The Palestinian state, that could be proclaimed this coming May, would have 3.05 million nationals (half a million more than predicted by Israeli demographers). Counting the 970,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel, it means there are four million Palestinians (out of a world total of eight million) living in mandatory Palestine. Despite the exodus of 1948, followed by that of 1967, and economically-driven emigration, the Palestinian population in Palestine will have tripled in 50 years (1.36 million in 1948). Israel counters this with 4,78 million Jews, giving it a precarious majority of 54%. With an exceptionally high birthrate, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (6 children per mother) and of Israel (4.2 children) have a potential for growth three or four times higher than that of the Jewish population, which itself has a high birthrate (2.6 children, one child more than the Western norm).

At this rate the Palestinians will make up the majority in mandatory Palestine between 2007 and 2013, a lot sooner than former Prime Minister Shimon Peres had predicted (2018). By then they will account for 52% to 56% of the population. For Israel this means a tough choice between demography and democracy: either there is proper democracy (in which case the Palestinians will dominate) or Israel will be forced into apartheid-like rule.

Even within its pre-1967 borders, Israel is becoming increasingly heterogeneous - worryingly so. Take the case of Israel's Arab citizens: they made up 17% of the population in 1998 and will reach 21% to 26% by 2025. They are likely to double their Knesset representation (12 out of 120 Members of Knesset (MKs) in 1998) as a result of their demographic growth, their geographical concentration in northern Israel (here they are likely to grow from 36% to become the majority by the time Israel reaches its centenary), and their growing sense of national awareness. Further, if Israel tries to incorporate Jerusalem, it will have to take account of its growing Arab population: the 29% of Palestinians now in "united" Jerusalem would grow to 38% in 2020 (and 48% of them would be under five).

Can this growth rate be countered by Jewish growth? For many years Sephardi women were prized for their "reproductive virtues". Before the Russian immigration of the early 1990s the sefaradim formed the majority of the Jewish population: 52% in 1988. But now their birth rate is scarcely higher than that of the Ashkenazi.

The demographic rivalry has been to the advantage of the ultra-religious (both Ashkenazi and Sephardi), who account for a quarter of the Jewish electorate and more than 20 MKs. Their birthrate (six children per family) is not just higher than that of the secular Jews but also the Palestinians (of Israel or the occupied territories). However their demographic "victory" could well compromise Israel's secular character.

Countering Palestinian demography by means of Jewish immigration from Russa seems less risky. The Russian party Israel Ba'Aliya, which hopes to double its MKs this May, make no secret of its desire to receive another million Russians - although the United Nations is talking about 300,000 and Israeli statistics point to zero immigration (or even negative). Whatever happens, not too much weight should be attached to the impact of Russian migration - particularly since the Russians are deeply secular, if not atheists, and not even in a hurry to learn Hebrew. In fact, what we are really seeing is the formation of a new ethnic group of about a million alongside the Arabs and the Jews.

Last, there is a fourth ethnic group currently being formed from the 250,000 immigrant workers from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. In their search for roots and recognition, they are keen to learn Hebrew and even convert in order to get to the top.


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