RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian construction worker Nael Yassin and his wife, Wafa, are the proud parents of a new baby girl — the fifth child for the couple in their early 30s.
Such fecundity is usually a private affair, but in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a broader issue is in play. A race for “demographic” prominence — and the fact that Israel may be losing it — has become critical to the current peace effort led by John Kerry.
The US secretary of state himself has started warning Israel that it stands to become a binational state unless it ends the occupation of the lands it captured in the 1967 war. Kerry, who is expected to present a framework for a deal soon, said last month that failure “will make it impossible to preserve (Israel’s) future as a democratic Jewish state.”
The idea — emphasized as never before — is being listened to in Israel.
In a speech Monday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid presented the issue as the main reason Kerry must succeed: “Every moment we don’t separate from the Palestinians is a clear threat to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.”
The “demographic issue” is focusing Israeli minds in a way that moral arguments against occupation have not, particularly when they are weighed against forgoing the West Bank’s strategic hinterland and Jerusalem with its unrivaled religious and historic sites.
Some experts are predicting Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel plus the areas it captured in 1967 — the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Continued occupation, they say, would force Israel into a hard choice: Formalize Jewish minority rule over disenfranchised Palestinians — or give them the right to vote and end the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine.
In this context, those arguing for a pullout on these terms are essentially trying to save Israel as a “Jewish state” — where the degree of Jewishness is a function of the size of the majority.
In a century of Arab-Jewish conflict, the population balance shifted because of Jewish immigration and war-driven displacement of Arabs.
About 750,000 people lived in historic Palestine at the beginning of British rule after World War I, including 78 percent Muslims, 11 percent Jews and 10 percent Christians, said Joseph Chamie, former head of the UN Population Division. The Christians and Muslims were generally both Arabs.
In 1947, the United Nations voted to end British rule and partition Palestine into “independent Arab and Jewish states.” At that time the population of 1.8 million was 60 percent Muslims, 31 percent Jews and 8 percent Christians.
In the war that followed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from what became Israel, and many Jews then immigrated to the new country. Jews made up 87 percent of Israel’s population in 1950, Chamie said.
The West Bank and the Gaza Strip were seized by Jordan and Egypt, respectively — but when Israel captured those areas in 1967, the demographic equation changed again.
Currently, just over 12 million people live in the combined territory, according to figures from the Israeli and Palestinian statistics bureaus.
Israel’s population stood at some 8.1 million in 2013, said Pnina Zadka of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That includes West Bank settlers, Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, captured in 1967 from Syria. The figure breaks down to 6.1 million Jews, or roughly 75 percent, and 1.68 million Arabs, or 21 percent, she said.
The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics put the number of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem last year at just over 4.4 million.
Subtracting some 300,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem from the Palestinian bureau’s total because Israel already counted them, the result would still indicate near-parity in the Holy Land — 6.1 million Jews and close to 5.8 million Arabs, including those with Israeli citizenship.
Without a partition deal, Jews will eventually become a minority because of higher Arab population growth, said demographer Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Arnon Soffer, a geographer at Haifa University.
Some Israelis would like to exclude Gaza from the count, since Israel pulled out troops and settlers in 2005 and it is now controlled by the Hamas militant group. But Palestinians see it as an integral part of Palestine and argue that Israel’s sea blockade and continued control of airspace mean the occupation continues in another form.
If Gaza residents are removed from the count, then Jews would make up 61 percent of the population in Israel and the West Bank, but would still end up as a minority in 20 to 25 years, Della Pergola said.
In Israel itself, the higher Arab and lower Jewish growth rates will converge in about a generation, said Zadka of the Israeli statistics bureau.
So if Israel gives up most of the West Bank, it can assure a Jewish majority at home “for eternity,” Soffer said.
On the other hand, Della Pergola said, keeping the West Bank means “you must give up on a Jewish state.”
Several former right-wing Israeli politicians, most prominently prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, seem to have come to the same conclusion despite past support for the occupation. Sharon oversaw Israel’s pullout from Gaza while Olmert pursued a partition deal in talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that broke down in 2008.
Current premier Benjamin Netanyahu, long a hard-liner, now seems to be at least a partial convert as well. He speaks of a two-state solution and vows to prevent a binational state.
But his Likud Party still formally opposes a Palestinian state and his messages can appear halfhearted and mixed. Palestinians especially distrust him, pointing to his refusal to freeze the settlement effort that has complicated partition by placing 550,000 Israelis on occupied land.
Much of Israel’s current thinking involves how to keep as much as possible of the West Bank — to minimize the number of settlers that will have to be moved — while at the same time incorporating as few Palestinians as possible. The Palestinians bristle at significant changes to the pre-1967 border.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman caused a stir in recent weeks by proposing to swap parts Arab-populated parts of Israel proper for areas of the West Bank with Jewish settlements.
Some on the Israeli right still argue that the demographic threat is overstated.
The American-Israel Demographic Research Group, a private initiative led by Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli consul in Texas, claims Palestinians in the West Bank number only about 1.5 million — or about 1 million less than the Palestinian count.
Ettinger’s group alleges that two Palestinian censuses, of 2007 and 1997, were flawed. He argued that in 1997, Palestinian demographers counted some 325,000 Palestinian emigres and presumed large-scale immigration that didn’t materialize.
Ola Awad, the chief Palestinian demographer, said the 2007 census was based on a detailed head count, with advice from the UN and Norway. Anders Thomsen of the UN Population Fund backed her up, saying the census was “done according to international standards,” with support by his and other UN agencies.
Yacov Faitelson, a member of Ettinger’s group, also argued that Arab fertility is falling in much of the region while Jewish fertility — already exceptionally high for a developed country with three children per woman — is on the upswing.
Della Pergola said he factored declining Arab fertility rates into his forecasts, and charged that his critics ignore that Palestinian society is younger, with more people of reproductive age.
The Yassins, who live in the Qalandiya refugee camp north of Jerusalem, illustrate some of those trends. Like others in their generation, they tend to have smaller families than their parents, but still have more children, on average, than Jewish couples.
Nael Yassin, 34, who was one of seven siblings, said he hopes baby Rahaf will be his last. At his wife’s bedside, he objected to the idea of a demographic race, calling it unsustainable.
“Where would everyone go?” he said.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.