The Demography Argument Takes Center Stage

In an interview with The Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg on March 2, 2014, President Barack Obama prodded Israel to forge a deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before time runs out. Reiterating the message given to the Israeli leadership by Secretary of State John Kerry, the President stated,
each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis can accept and the Palestinians can accept — in part because of changes in demographics.
Anticipation of the day when the Arab population will outnumber the Jewish population between the Jordan River and the Mediteranean Sea has long injected a sense of urgency to concluding a deal with the Palestinians. The so-called “demographic argument” resonates in the media that covers the diplomatic process. But writing in the Algemeiner on Feb. 27, 2014, Michael Widlanski urged caution in blindly accepting demographic predictions. He recalled the history of mistaken population forecasts and the uncertainty about current predictions for the future.
Widlanski cited the early example of esteemed Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, who predicted in 1898 that “in a hundred years the Jewish population of Palestine will reach one hundred thousand men. Dubnov’s estimate was only off by a ratio of 50 to 1.” Widlanski wrote “Had Zionist leaders accepted Dubnov’s dire demographic view, they might have aborted a modern state of Israel before it was born.”
More recently, the Soviet Jewish immigration wave in the 1990s was not foreseen nor were the opposing trends in Arab and Jewish fertility rates. Arab rates have declined more rapidly than predicted, while Jewish rates have increased slightly, not only due to increasing numbers of religious Jews, but even among secular Israeli Jews. If the trends continue, the Jewish fertility rate in Israel will soon exceed the Palestinian fertility rate in the West Bank.
Basing crucial national policy on demographic predictions has always been fraught with danger. In 1987, the Chicago Tribune carried an article on the demography debate in Israel. The distinguished Israeli demographer Arnon Sofer was quoted as saying,
“Demographically speaking, Israel is without question becoming a binational state. These statistics don’t lie … This is the greatest threat to the democratic foundations of Zionism and the Jewish state, and no one can ignore it any longer.” (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 20, 1987)
Geula Cohen, then the leader of the nationalist Tehiya Party, reportedly retorted, “You have your statistics, and I have my own music.” Then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir characterized Sofer and Meron Benvenisti, another noted demographer who shared Sofer’s view, as “defeatists,” “pessimists” and “prophets of doom.” Shamir countered that Israel from its inception always faced demographic danger, but “with another wave of Jewish immigration… Israel’s Jewish majority could be assured for years to come.” Shamir was partially vindicated seven years later when a wave of Soviet Jewish immigration began that would bring to Israel a million Jews and reset the demographic clock for at least another decade.
Complicating the forecasting problem is the uncertainty of population statistics. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2009 reported that Palestinian fertility rates in the West Bank stood at 3.8 children per female over the course of a lifetime. This was down from 5.6 in 1997 and 9 in 1960 (rates in the Gaza Strip were approximately 1 higher for 2009 and 1997). According to PCBS, the total Palestinian Arab population in the territories in 2013 stood at 4.42 million, comprising 2.72 million in the West Bank and 1.7 million in the Gaza Strip.
However, the Palestinian figures are disputed. The American-Israeli Demographic Research Group [AIDRG] published a study in 2005 that calculates the West Bank Arab population as a million less than what is claimed by the PCBS. The discrepancies AIDRG claims to have uncovered are as follows:
• Some 300,000 Arabs living in East Jerusalem are double counted, both as part of the West Bank population and as part of the Israeli population
• Arabs who left the West Bank years ago are still counted even though they are not likely to return
• Population growth figures are not based on real census counts, but are matched to extrapolations of fertility rate projections that did not account for the more pronounced decline in fertility rates that actually happened
Lending support to AIDRG’s hypothesis that Palestinian fertility is lower than commonly assumed, Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, reported in an article on the striking decline in fertility in Muslim nations that Arab fertility in the West Bank was down to 3.05 in 2011.
However, Sofer, who remains steadfast in his opinion that Israel faces a demographic threat, disparages the AIDRG study, stating, “What this group is doing borders on crime, it’s a macro deception” (Haaretz, June 30, 2013). Sofer gives an example of a flaw in the AIDRG study, alleging that the group claims that “every year between 60,000 and 80,000 people leave the country.” However, Roberta Seid, one of the authors of the AIDRG study responded in the on-line comment section,
We noted that the PCBS had predicted increasing massive immigration to the PA, predicted to begin in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. That immigration never occurred, hence the 60,000 subtracted from their total population. If Mr. Sofer had read the study more carefully, he would have realized that it never identified 60,000 emigrants. On the other hand, in our research, we found that Israeli Border Patrol numbers indicated there was steady immigration, a net average of 10,000 to 20,000 a year.
As is the case with nearly every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one’s political views tend to determine which facts are given credence. Many who urge Israel to press on and conclude a two-state solution accept the “demographic argument” and the higher population estimates for West Bank Arabs; those urging Israel to resist pressure to move forward on an agreement are more inclined t
o give credence to the lower figures.
The debate over the West Bank Arab population and forecasts generates little attention in the mainstream media. The media overwhelmingly views the two-state solution as the only way forward and the “demographic argument” justifies that belief. Those who cover the diplomatic process should be more curious about the debate over the West Bank Arab population. It would also be informative to discuss how these different population estimates and forecasts are utilized by proponents of the alternative political formulas for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The “demographic argument” also impacts the Palestinian side, although it leads to different conclusions than on the Israeli side. The belief that the Arab population will one day swamp the Jewish population in Israel and the West Bank (and Gaza) reinforces Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state. It acts in synchrony with the Palestinian demand for the repatriation of Arab refugees and their numerous descendants into Israel. For years statements attributed to former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat encouraged Palestinian Arabs to have many children in order to win the “battle of the womb.”
A recent article in the Times of Israel reports that former Palestinian Authority official Hanan Ashrawi warned that once the Palestinian Arab population overtakes the Jewish population it would end the chances for a two-state solution. Her statement implied that the Palestinians would not be interested in just the West Bank and Gaza if they could demographically dominate a binational state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s statements demonstrate that public officials continue to trust in the conventional “demographic argument” that the Arab population will outnumber the Jewish population in Israel and the West Bank. There should be more media scrutiny about the what underlies various demographic predictions and how reliable they are. Instead of facilely accepting the conventional wisdom that demography must determine the political process, it might be worthwhile asking whether it is demography that is driving politics or politics that is driving the demographic argument. 

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