The number of Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has always been of interest to pundits and politicians on both sides of Israel’s political divide.
But as rampant Middle East violence and a fragmented Palestinian body politic make the prospect of normalization with the Palestinians seem more distant than ever to most Israelis, the “demographic issue” — as it is often called — has taken center stage, shifting the political debate in Israel from the likelihood of regional peace to the threat to Israel’s democratic character.
On the left, the optimistic idea of a “new Middle East” (the title of former president and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres’s 1995 book) has given way to the much more modest aspiration for “an agreement.” Most Israeli leftists have stopped dreaming of a happy marriage with the Palestinians and hope for an amicable divorce at best.
At a speech presenting his merger with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua last month, Labor leader Isaac Herzog eschewed the touchy issue of “peace,” substituting it with a promise of “security instead of fear.”
Even key leaders of the ideological right admit that it would be impossible for Israel to continue defining itself as both Jewish and democratic in a unitary state from the river to the sea, given a Jewish minority and Arab majority
On the ideological right, meanwhile, key leaders admit that it would be impossible for Israel to continue defining itself as both Jewish and democratic in a unitary state from the river to the sea, given a Jewish minority and Arab majority. That’s why Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett’s “partial annexation plan” prescribes Palestinian self-rule in and around West Bank cities (known as areas A and B under the Oslo Accords), and why Deputy Transportation and Science Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s full-annexation scheme is predicated on the immigration of 2 million Jews to Israel within a decade (Hebrew link).
So the debate between right and left revolves, to a great extent, around the numbers, determining the immediacy of the “demographic threat.” New data published last week by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) — claiming that Jews will become a minority in the Land of Israel by late 2016 — has many experts worried.
According to the Palestinian statistics, 6.08 million Palestinians currently live west of the Jordan River, compared to 6.10 million Jews. Higher Palestinian birthrates (and low Jewish immigration) mean that by 2020, 7.14 million Palestinians will live in the land and just 6.87 million Jews, PCBS claims.
The official Israeli numbers are quite similar. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported 1,719,000 Arab citizens (including some 140,000 Druze, as well as other Arabic-speaking religious groups, who don’t necessarily identify as Palestinians or even Arabs), and 6,218,000 Jews living in sovereign Israel at the end of 2014. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) — a branch of the Israel Defense Forces that controls the Palestinian population registry — claims that 2.754 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and 1.73 million in the Gaza Strip. That puts the total number of Palestinians in the land at approximately 6.2 million, very close to the number of Jews living in the same territory.
And if foreign workers and non-Jewish Russian immigrants in Israel are subtracted, Jews are already a minority in the land between the river and the sea, according to Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola.
“I stand behind the Palestinian statistics,” said Arnon Soffer, the Reuven Chaikin chair in geostrategy at Haifa University, who has published extensively on the demographic aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Soffer noted that Israel has not carried out a census of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza since it took control of the territories in 1967. The first census was carried out by the Palestinian Authority in 1997, and the second in 2007. Palestinian demographic statistics are gleaned from the most recent census, he said.
But some Israeli politicians on the right cite unofficial data that reduces the number of Palestinians by a full one million in the West Bank, and 400,000 in the Gaza Strip. Those statistics have been published by Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli diplomat, who claims Israel has little cause for demographic alarm.
According to Ettinger, who has been studying the Palestinian statistics since 2004 as part of the American-Israel Demographic Research Group (a team of three American and six Israeli researchers), the Palestinian statisticians have included in their figures more than 400,000 Palestinians living abroad for over a year, in contravention of international standards. They have also disregarded Palestinian emigration, which stood at 20,000 in 2013 and at an average of 17,000 over the four previous years.
The true number of Palestinians is also exaggerated due to double counting, Ettinger argued. Some 300,000 Jerusalem residents are counted both as Israelis and as West Bank Palestinians; and some 105,000 Palestinians who married Israelis between 1997 and 2003 have also been counted twice. In total, Ettinger estimated the true number of Palestinians between the Jordan and the Mediterranean at 4.8 million.
“The PCBS consistently inflates its numbers,” Ettinger told The Times of Israel. “Official Israeli agencies simply regurgitate the Palestinian numbers. There is no demographic auditing unit in the Israeli Defense Ministry, or anywhere else, examining the Palestinian numbers. That’s tragic and negligent.”
DellaPergola, a demographer at the Hebrew University’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, said Ettinger’s double-counting argument is incorrect, but said that the Palestinian numbers do not take into account emigration and citizens living abroad and are thus inflated by approximately 380,000 individuals. “This discrepancy is relatively negligible compared to what Ettinger says,” he said.
In a telephone interview with The Times of Israel, DellaPergola dubbed Ettinger “delusional” for denying the most crucial demographic fact to be considered: The Palestinian population is growing significantly faster than the Jewish one.
If foreign workers and non-Jewish Russian immigrants are detracted from the ‘Jewish’ rubric, Jews are already today a minority in their land, said Sergio DellaPergola
“Immigration isn’t as important as it was in the past, so fertility is really the primary driving factor in demographics,” he said. “High fertility means a young population, and hence a very low death rate. The death rate among Arabs here is among the lowest in the world. This is something Ettinger will never write about.” While the fertility rate for Jewish women in Israel stands at 3, it is 3.4 for Arab Israeli women. In the West Bank and Gaza, the Arab birth rate is even higher, averaging at 4.1 births per woman.
“Since [Ettinger] receives money to say that Israel should never leave the territories, he tries to deny these facts, claiming that in the future the birthrate will change,” DellaPergola said. “That’s possible. But in the present, it is what it is. He’s peddling some imaginary future in an utterly unprofessional way, because he never took a course in demographics. He’s nothing but a charlatan.”
Ettinger acknowledged that neither he nor members of his research group have demographics credentials, but argued that the work they carry out is similar to auditing, not statistical analysis.
“When an accounting firm examines the financial balance of the Israel Aerospace Industries, carrying out due diligence, none of the examiners is an aeronautical engineer,” Ettinger said. “However, each of them knows how to carry out due diligence, which was never done by Soffer or DellaPergola, who simply echo the Palestinian figures,” he charged.
Bennett Zimmerman of Los Angeles, Ettinger’s co-founder of the American-Israel Demographic Research Group, used to carry out due diligence for Boston-based management consulting firm Bain & Company, Ettinger said. A member of the Israeli research team, Brigadier General (res.) David Shahaf served as head of the IDF’s Civil Administration in the West Bank between 1995 and 1998.
Ettinger also denied being paid for his conclusions, saying that his group’s entire research budget since 2004 is $20,000.
Soffer of Haifa University was still harsher in describing Ettinger’s data, warning of its potential to mislead politiicans and military chiefs with dire consequences. Ettinger and his team “invent things to enable the annexation of the territories. It is undignified to even debate these jokers, who include no demographers, and all belong to the extreme right.”
“In a normal state, people wishing to annex the territories [would know] they’re committing suicide, terminating the State of Israel. It’s craziness,” Soffer concluded. “People like Bogey [Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon] and Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] know the truth. That’s why they dare not annex [the West Bank].”
In a chapter written for the American Jewish Yearbook 2014, DellaPergola — who researches Jewish demographics worldwide — claimed that if non-Jewish Russian immigrants living in Israel are detracted from the “Jewish” rubric, and foreign workers are added to the non-Jewish rubric, Jews are already today a minority in their land. According to DellaPergola, the number of Arabs living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as of January 1, 2014, is 5,698,500 (as opposed to a “core Jewish population” of 6,103,200, excluding non-Jewish and non-Arab Israelis, and foreign workers).
DellaPergola said he heard Economy Minister (and Jewish Home leader) Bennett cite Ettinger’s numbers “with great enthusiasm” at a conference in Tel Aviv a few months ago.
“I met him in the corridor outside and said: ‘Mr. Minister, your demographics are shoddy. You are welcome to invite me to your office, where I’ll give you a short introduction to demographics.'”
How did Bennett respond? “He laughed, and that was the end of it.”