All Writings
November 4, 2003

Demographic Reality And Coexistence

For the Israelis and Palestinians, demographic factors have from the start played a central role in their struggle not only for nationhood but for preserving their majority and national identity. From as early as the 1920s the knowledge that demographic factors would immensely influence the possibility for coexistence and if that occurred the nature of that coexistence led both sides to pursue extreme measures designed to increase their population. These efforts led to the current demographic composition in the region and the interdispersement of Jewish and Palestinian population. It is this demographic "revolution" that has created a reality–one not subject to any dramatic change, short of a catastrophe-which has made coexistence under two separate political authorities inevitable. From the Israeli perspective, Israel was created as a Jewish state, the answer to the Jewish people's millennia-long yearning to return to the land of their ancestors and reestablish the third commonwealth. Maintaining the Jewish national character of the state was and continues to be seen by Israelis as the principal requisite for safeguarding the future of the country as a haven for all Jews who opt to live in their ancient homeland. Israel, therefore, was and is a specific case of an ethnic state–a state of and for the Jews. To that end from 1917, when British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announced his government had decided to grant the Jews the right to establish their own independent state in Palestine (which was then under British mandate), Zionist organizations focused on facilitating the immigration of Jews to that region from wherever they resided, especially in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The first wave of immigrants came from Russia in the late 1800's The second wave, after World War I, were from East European countries, mainly Poland and Russia. These were followed by waves of immigrants from the Middle East and Egypt in the late 1940s and 1950s and then in the 1960s from North Africa. Shortly after Israel was declared a nation in 1948, to bolster its demographic strength, the Israeli government enunciated policies designed to increase the birth rate of the Jewish community by providing subsidies for larger families. To this end, the government also passed the Law of Return, granting any Jew, regardless of his or her origin or place of residence, the right to immigrate to Israel and automatically be granted citizenship. The major immigration laws enforce this policy, by allowing Jews to enter freely, excluding Palestinian Arabs, and permitting other non-Jews entry only under certain strict conditions. Land and settlements policies are also geared to further the interest of Jews only. In many other ways the state extends preferential treatment to Jews who wish to preserve the embedded Jewishness and Zionism of the state. This strategy has also been supported by religious, cultural, and traditional policies that made inescapable the Jewishness of the state in all of its manifestations. For example, the dominant language is Hebrew, while Arabic is studied as a secondary language; and the institutions, official holidays, symbols, and heroes are exclusively Jewish. From its inception, Israel was conceived to be a Jewish commonwealth–a thriving ethnic democracy in the ancient homeland with a Jewish national identity as its core. This was considered the sine-qua-non of release from the millennium-long suffering that can be traced to the diaspora.

This core goal also explains why Israel remains diametrically opposed to the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees. In fact, Israel insists that a defacto population exchange, one of the unintended consequences of the wars of 1948 and 1967, precipitated the Palestinian refugee problem. The 700 to 800 thousand Palestinian refugees who left their place of residence in Israel proper because of these wars were replaced by Jewish refugees. Thus, from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s an equal if not larger number of Jews from Arab states, mainly Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Syria, immigrated to Israel, where the government quickly resettled them throughout the country. The Palestinians correctly saw the ominous implications of the increased Jewish population. They counterattacked by opposing Jewish immigration and successfully persuaded the British government to reassess its support of the establishment of a Jewish state and prevent Jews, especially from Eastern Europe, to immigrate to Palestine. In addition, following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Palestinian leadership, with the support of the Arab states, deliberately perpetuated the Palestinian refugee problem, demanding repatriation to Israel proper. If this demand had been fulfilled, it would have had dramatic demographic implications for the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Finally, recognizing that birth rate could have a serious impact not only on population growth, but on the demographic composition of the two communities, the Palestinians made an increased birth rate a prime strategic goal. Remarks attributed to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat reveal the Palestinian mindset. "The Israelis fear us. . . . They fear our children and the Palestinian women who give birth to another child every ten months." For Arafat the Palestinian natural birth rate was a "biological time bomb which threatens to blow up Israel from within. . . ." . And he was nearly correct in predicting in the mid- 1980s that "After the year 2000 the number of Palestinians will be greater than the number of Jews," and "therein lies the Palestinian ultimate victory." Many other PLO leaders also occasionally express a growing sentiment among the PLO rank and file: since, demographically speaking, time is on our side, why then rush to a political settlement that may require premature concessions?

The demographic picture has been made more complicated by Israel's settlements policy throughout the 1980s, and the 1990s, Palestinian entrenchment inside and outside the territories, and the interdispersement of both populations, the result of daily socio-economic intercourse, especially before the eruption of the second Intifadah in 2000. Assessment of the population dispersement of Palestinians throughout the region suggests an indisputable reality with which the Israelis and the Palestinian must reckon. When Israel was created there were about 650.000 Jews in Palestine and more than double that number of Palestinians. Currently there are roughly 5.5 million Jews and 1.25 Palestinians in Israel and the vast majority of Palestinians live within a 75-mile radius; nearly 2.5 million in Jordan, 2. million in the West Bank, 1.5 in Gaza, and 500,000 in Lebanon. The remaining 15 to 18 percent are scattered throughout other Arab countries and around the world.

The other complicating factor is the existence of Israel's Palestinian community estimated at the present to be 1.25 million people and growing, like the rest of the Palestinian population, at a rate of 32 per 1000 annually after mortality, as compared to a growth rate of 13 per 1000 for Israeli Jews. But the dual Jewish and democratic character of the state makes the status of the large Arab population problematic. And it is precisely their status that raises the most fundamental issue of Israeli identity: how to reconcile these two characteristics when they clash with each other under circumstances involving the Arab minority. For there are inherent inconsistencies between Jewish nationalism–the core of which is the permanent Jewish identity of the state based on ethnic democracy–and Palestinian nationalism–which requires legitimizing the Palestinian national movement and therefore the "de-ethnizing" of the state, if as the demographics posit, the two populations are to merge into one state. This Palestinian prerequisite, coupled with demands for equal individual, collective, and political rights, would necessarily precipitate the dissolution of the ethnic-democratic foundation of the nation of Israel.

For these reasons, there has always been a deliberate effort by successive Israeli governments to keep the Arab minority non-assimilated with the Jewish majority, for example, by reducing the rate of intermarriage, and so prevent the transformation of Israel into a binational state. These efforts have been only marginally successful. The Palestinians' gradual penetration of Israeli society has succeeded beyond their own wildest expectations. Within and outside the territories, they have launched a demographic counteroffensive demonstrating steadfastness, flexibility, and the ability to flourish. Thus, Arab penetration of Jewish cities and towns is increasing throughout Israel; there are dozens of urban centers including Tel Aviv-Jaffe, Lod, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ramie, Maalot, and Tarshiha where Jews and Arabs live side-by-side. As a result, shifting or transferring significant numbers of Palestinians or settlers from their present place of residence would be violently resisted by either or both sides. In the end the interdispersement of Israelis and Palestinians in Israel proper and the West Bank and Gaza make Israeli-Palestinian coexistence fundamental to any future settlement. Coexistence is not only dictated by demographic conditions, but has also become, after 35 years, a way of life enforced daily by socio-economic and security considerations. At this point only an all-out war may precipitate another massive refugee movement–or genocide. These realities must now be carefully considered against the backdrop of Israeli and Palestinian insistence on preserving the national identity of the territories under their jurisdiction now and certainly in the future.

Both Israel and any future Palestinian state would, therefore, have to offer their peoples legal jurisdiction for residency and citizenship. In addition to the present Israeli-Palestinian population , hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will end up living in Israel as residents but citizens of the Palestinian state. A Fewer number of Israelis might opt to remain in territories under Palestinian jurisdiction, as residents of Palestine but citizens of Israel. That both population are actually so interdispersed means that the only possible separation between the two communities would be a political one.

The establishment of a Palestinian state over most of the West Bank (97%) and Gaza will have to eventually satisfy the dual territorial claims to the territories. This coupled with the reality of interdispersement will make it possible for Palestinians and Israelis to each maintain their own separate national identities without uprooting themselves in order to establish a physical presence in the area where their national political expression is exercised freely. Palestinians living in Israel and in Jordan will naturally identify emotionally and intellectually with their own political entity to satisfy their need for national identity Besides, the presence of 1.25 million Palestinians in Israel makes it particularly important to maintain open channels to Palestinian cultural and religious centers in the West Bank. There the Palestinian national center would become the national focal point, where all Palestinians, regardless of their place of residence, could identify. Although some Palestinian leaders speak of eventual repatriation of all Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza, there is no realistic way to implement such a scheme because of the enormous socioeconomic, political, and logistical problems. This may not matter significantly, for in numerous surveys the majority seem willing to opt for resettlement in their present country of residence or to receive compensation. It has also been suggested that 75 to 100 thousand Palestinians will be allowed to return to Israel proper for reasons of family reunion or other personal considerations. Finally, Israel and the future Palestinian state would offer their people legal jurisdiction for residency and citizenship. Each state will establish its own laws to govern the issuance of permits for residency or citizenship of each other nationals who wish to relocate from state to the other.

Those kinds of arrangements would permanently prevent the Palestinians or the Israelis from attaining a demographic majority in each other's territorial domain. The Lebanese tragedy and the explosion of ethnic strife across Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, as well as their own experiences, serve as vivid reminders to Arabs and Jews of the horrors arising from demographic imbalance and ethnic jealousy when different religions and ethnic groups are governed by the same political authority. Maintaining separate national identities by ethnic and democratic means and coexistence with full cooperation are not mutually exclusive. Only their combination can create the ideological basis and the pragmatic means to built a lasting peace of reconciliation.