Israel: Democracy or Demographic Jewish State?
by Ed Hollants

February 12, 2004

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The last few months have suddenly seen a flurry of activity. There have been an unprecedented number of political initiatives which have seemed to hold out the hope of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least of bringing such a solution closer. There have been the Geneva Accord, the Olmert initiative, Sharon’s plan with its mention of withdrawals from settlements in Gaza, the People’s Voice, One Voice, and even the colonists want to present their own plan. You might ask yourself: why now, when there is virtually no pressure on Israel? Nobody seems to care any more about, for example, the daily civilian casualties in the Occupied Territories. The Americans have their hands full with Iraq, and there are presidential elections next year.

It is that it has become more widely understood in Israel itself that a military solution is a recipe for disaster, and that the only solution is a political one? It seems more likely that the realisation is dawning that expected demographic developments are such that there will soon be a Jewish minority in what is now Israel, including the Occupied Territories. This would mean the end of Israel as a Zionist state.

Overview of the Three Most Important Developments

The Geneva Accord

This accord, which has been worked on for two years by Israelis as well as Palestinians, was officially published on 1 December 2003. The most important figures behind this accord are the Palestinian Minister of Information, Yasser Abed Rabbo, and the former Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin.

In this accord the Palestinians receive the whole pre-1967 territory with the exception of Maaleh Adumim (a suburb of Jerusalem), the Etzion block between Jerusalem and Hebron except for Efrat, a number of Jewish neighbourhoods in northern Jerusalem, and a strip near Latrun intended for the defence of Ben-Gurion International Airport. An equivalent area of the Negev desert would be added to the Gaza strip.

The Temple Mount and the old city of Jerusalem would become Palestinian. The Western (“Wailing”) Wall and the Jewish quarter of the old city would become Israeli. In addition, the Palestinians would have to fully recognise Israel as a “Jewish State”. The right of return of Palestinian refugees would be relinquished.

The Olmert Initiative

This is a proposal by Vice-Premier Ehud Olmert (Likud). Due to the absence of a peace process, Israel would take unilateral steps. Israel would withdraw from predominantly Palestinian areas and annexe the larger settlements. A number of suburbs of East Jerusalem would also go to the Palestinians. It would come down to an aspiration for an Israel which is made up of 80% Jews and 20% others.
No further details are known, but it is in any case much less favourable to the Palestinians than the Geneva plan. There has, however, been an extremely hostile reaction to this plan within Likud.

The Sharon Plan

If the Palestinians have not done enough, in Sharon’s view, to implement the “roadmap” within a few months, then he wants to implement a “separation plan”. In other words, he probably still has a few months to convince the US to agree with his plan. In fact Israel has done nothing to implement the roadmap itself, but it still demands that Arafat is removed, that a new Palestinian authority is created, and that armed groups are disbanded: impossible demands in the current situation.

The details of the plan are unknown, but in broad terms it means that the Jewish population would be separated from the Palestinian population in the settlements. The wall would be completed at an accelerated pace, and some settlements would be evacuated. This would mean that 43% of the West Bank would come into Jewish hands. It is highly likely that that the wall would become the definitive border. In addition, there are plans to place a fence or wall in the Jordan valley, so that the valley would also become mainly Jewish. In the Gaza Strip the settlements would be evacuated, because the demographic balance in an extremely small area would be so unbalanced (1 million Palestinians as against 7,500 Jewish Israelis) that it is seen as untenable.

The Demographic Factor

An important argument from the Israeli side for a number of the proposals is based on predicted demographic developments. Yossi Beilin of the Geneva Accord has stated in several announcements in the press that if something is not done quickly Israel may cease to exist because of demographic developments if a Palestinian state is not created. “We have to reach a solution, we can no longer play for time. In seven years at the most there will be more Arabs than Jews living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan. If we then become a sort of South Africa, with an apartheid regime, then a minority of Jews will dominate a majority Arabs.” (NRC, 1 November 2003).

Olmert, in the newspaper Yediot Ahranot on 4 December 2003, stated: ”The status quo will destroy Zionism and the ‘Jewish Homeland’.” According to him, Jews must “now choose between keeping the ‘territories’ and running the risk of losing the Jewish majority, or abandoning the greater part of the ‘territories’ and preserving Israel as a Jewish state”.

And, in various other media, ne said of his plan: “It is the only answer to the demographic peril.” “If no results are achieved through negotiations – and I do not believe that there is a realistic chance of an agreement – then we will have to implement a unilateral alternative.”

“To a growing extent, the Palestinians are no longer interested in negotiations towards a two-state solution, because they want to change the nature of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one: from the struggle against, in their terms, an “occupation”, to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. That is, of course, a much more credible struggle, a much more popular struggle, and ultimately a much more powerful one. For us that means the end of the Jewish state. The controversial wall now being built will ultimately be a part of the unilateral plan”.

The above is also precisely the reason why every proposal, now and in the past, rules out the right of return of Palestinian refugees. A Palestinian refugee is not seen as a future citizen who can satisfy the rights and duties which the state imposes on him, but as a non-Jew who forms a threat to the state of Israel as a Jewish state.

The debate about demographics has been taking place more broadly and openly, especially in the last two years, and is carried out everywhere: at universities as well as in the media and politics.

Arabs Count

At the moment, 19% of the Israeli population is of Arab origin. Alongside this, a large group of non-Jews have also entered Israel, mainly after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Christians with Jewish ancestors (the “Jewish grandmother”), or people who entered on false documents. Nobody knows exactly how many non-Jews have been brought into Israel in this way by the Jewish agency and other organisations. Estimates vary between 200,000 and 400,000.

A shift in the ratio of 20% non-Jews to 80% Jews is seen as threatening. One of the experts who has repeatedly expressed his views on demographic developments over a long period is Amnon Sofer, a demographer at the University of Haifa. Sofer is known in Israel as the “Arab counter”. In the Israeli newspaper Haaretz of 9 December 2003, he says that there is already a majority of non-Jews in the area covering Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. In his estimates he also counts a group of foreign workers. He further states that if predicted immigration from France, Britain and Belgium does not go ahead within 17 years, the population will rise by 6 million, most of them poor Palestinians. “The country is heading for a demographic and ecological whirlwind”. And on Israel without the occupied territories, Sofer says that in 2020 the number of Arab citizens of Israel will be 2 million, while the Jewish majority will shrink to 65%.

As far as the predicted immigration from Europe is concerned, the “hope” in various circles in Israel is for rising anti-semitism in a number of European countries which will lead some of the Jews in those countries to choose to emigrate to Israel.

In the past, Israel was there like a flash at the moment that the Argentinean economy collapsed, in order to convince Jews there to emigrate to Israel. The same applied after the collapse of the Soviet empire. In part, Jews here also emigrated out of purely economic motives, while the original Palestinian inhabitants still have no right of return.

Dr. Yitzhak Ravid of the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya has also been making calculations: in 2020 the population of the country of Israel (including the Occupied Territories) will have risen to 15.1 million. In Israel without the Occupied Territories there will be 6.5 million Jews. And according to Ravid, the number of Arabs will then total 1.9 million. Another expert, Prof. Sergio della Pergola, presents identical figures. In the world of demographics it is customary to speak of a bi-national state if a minority makes up more than 30% of the population.

The foreign workers play an unclear role in research and predictions. Sometimes they are classified as “miscellaneous”, sometimes they are counted with the non-Jews, and sometimes as a reinforcement of the Jewish majority because they are not Arabs.

The division into Jewish, non-Jewish and Arab, instead of referring to citizens generally, has many consequences for the Palestinians (Israeli Arabs) in particular. A whole range of measures work to their disadvantage. To give a few examples: fewer schools, less childcare, no new villages, no right to purchase land, and so on. These differences partly arise from privileges granted to Jews who have become Israeli citizens through the “right to return”, and to those who have completed their military service (Palestinians do not carry out military service).

The Jewish Demographic State

Last June, an article about democracy appeared in the newspaper Haaretz, quoting among others Dr. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin of Ben-Gurion University. “It is alarming when Jews talk about democracy”, he says, “There were those who believed that the ethnic cleansings of 1948 had solved the problem. Now they have come to the realisation that Jews will always remain a minority in the Middle East”. By “they” Raz-Krakotzkin means the Israeli Left. According to him, the left-wing world view is based on demographic principles: it is the same as the vision of transfer.

“The peace proposals of the Israeli left are in fact a proposal to get rid of the Palestinians, which is why it sounds the same as the transfer idea.” Further, he says: “I share the feelings of fear and suspicion of the Jewish public. They are justified. By this I mean the thinking on continued Jewish existence, though I refuse to think in demographic terms”. “It makes the internal contradictions of Zionism clear”. Raz-Krakotzkin regularly refers to the “Jewish-demographic state” in connection with Israel.

It is exactly this problem which almost brought down the peace movement a few years ago. Because no clear choice was made for democracy and against political Zionism, the Palestinians’ demands were not understood and their struggle not recognised but seen as a threat. The peace movement fell between two stools and hardly knew how to move on.

This all explains why supportive sounds can also be heard emanating from the right wing for unilateral steps or for the Geneva Accord, where annexed East Jerusalem would (partly) go back to the Palestinians. This actually concerns the 220,000 Palestinians which Israel would (partly) be rid of. Ideas have even been put forward to cut off Palestinian villages in Northern Israel (Galilee) such as Umm al-Fahm. It is no longer a pure division of the country which is being considered, but primarily a division along demographic borders.

With the construction of the settlements, which has in fact been supported by both left and right-wing governments, Israel has brought a Trojan Horse in the form of millions of Palestinians within its gates.

Finance Minister Netanyahu said during the Herzliya national security conference on 17 December that the “security fence” must be constructed at an accelerated pace to separate the two populations and to prevent a “demographic exodus” from the Occupied Territories to Israel.

The right wing is now entangled between the politics of the settlements and the demographic factor, and this has led to divisions within the Right. If a Palestinian state is no longer possible because of the splitting of territories, then “homelands” of the sort which were found in South Africa will come into being. Almost everyone, including the more realistic figures on the Right such as Olmert, sees that this is not viable in the long term. This means the transfer (ethnic cleansing) of Palestinians to, for example, Jordan: which does not sound very realistic either. What remains is to accept the Palestinians as Israeli citizens, which many people certainly do not want. A solution is now being sought in frenetic attempts to combine different elements (the Olmert and Sharon plans). This brings them into conflict with the nationalist parties, the colonists and the right-wing block within Likud which remains true to the concept of Greater Israel.

Uri Avnery, the well-known peace activist from the small but active peace group Gush-Shalom, who dares to explain the conflict in Zionist terms, wrote in an article in October 2002: “Critics accuse Israel of ‘apartheid’, the racist South African doctrine. This comparison is partly misleading. In contrast to apartheid, Zionism is not based on race, but on a mixture of a ghetto mentality and 19th-century European nationalism.

The ghetto mentality, then, in the sense of the persecuted, isolated community which sees the whole world as divided into Jewish and Goyim (non-Jewish). European nationalism strove towards a homogeneous national-ethnic state. The Jewish demographic state contains both elements: a homogeneous Jewish national-ethnic state, with so few non-Jews as possible.”

Still, a distinction is often made between Arabs and other non-Jews. The fear of demographic shifts which would threaten the continued existence of Israel is mainly used against Arabs. Netanyahu said during the Herzliya conference that Israel is not so much threatened by Palestinians who will in future fall under Palestinian rule and gain self-determination, as by the Israeli Arab population. In this regard he proposes to improve education, probably in the knowledge that better education leads to lower population growth all over the world, and that this would also apply to the Israeli Palestinians.

Democratic State of Demographic Jewish State?

Israel in its current form will always be an exceptional case. Normalisation represents a danger for its continued existence as a Jewish state. No non-Jewish refugees can be admitted, and the reunification of Palestinian families and mixed marriages are threatening, as are free movement over borders and mobility of labour as seen in Europe. So it speaks for itself not to make too much haste with peace, but to maintain the tensions with the Palestinians and the neighbouring countries. It is also the only way towards a “transfer” of Palestinians. Peace, democratisation and economic recovery mean, after all, that borders will lose their significance.

In an article in Haaretz in September 2002, Boaz Evron wrote: “If Israel attempts to prevent the “demographic peril” by withdrawing from the Occupied Territories and shutting itself away in the “old” Israel, then within two generations or so a situation will exist where the majority of the population is made up of Arabs, foreign workers and Russians who have not converted. What will we do with them? Remove them? Or withdraw further?”

“This is the way to becoming, sooner or later, a closed religious culture, hated and isolated. And even within this ghetto, hostility will arise between secular and religious, Oriental and Western, “real” and Russian Jews. The term “Jewish” itself will have become a legalistic fiction.

Whether one state, two states or no state comes into being, the only realistic route to peace is based on democratic, not demographic, principles. The broader peace movement and the Left will be increasingly forced to make a choice between a democratic state or a Jewish state. If no choice is made, then the Right will maintain the initiative with their solution. We can therefore expect a Balkanisation of the conflict. What was a conflict over land would then become an ethnic conflict. Unfortunately, we can see that the motivation of many within Israel to work towards a solution is inspired by fear of demographic developments. All their plans therefore have as their primary purpose the removal of as many Palestinians as possible.

Ed Hollants is a member of the Autonoom Centrum in the Netherlands, an independent radical political center active on issues like migration, globalization, the Middle East, and radical democracy (www.autonoomcentrum.nl). He can be contacted at: ac@autonoomcentrum.nl. Translated from the Dutch original by Laurence Ranson.

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