Israel's demographic timebomb

From the archive (legacy material)

Jonathan Spyer | The Guardian | 14 January 2004

Israeli right-of-centre politics is today turned in on itself. The reason for this derives from the prominence in recent weeks given to proposals for unilateral disengagement by Israel from the Gaza Strip and the greater part of the West Bank, in the event of the continuation of the current deadlock between the sides.
The Likud party’s raison d’être, since its formation in 1973, has been the rejection of any territorial compromise in the West Bank, an area it considered crucial strategically, and which is saturated with sites and symbols of Jewish historical, cultural and religious importance.
In order to grasp what is happening in Likud, it is important to understand that the party has always rested on two not necessarily compatible foundations. The first is a disenchanted political realism, an acceptance that Zionism would need to re-establish itself in Israel in the face of violent Arab opposition to its claim, and a consequent viewing of the world and the conflict in stark, zero-sum terms. The second is a romantic nationalism, and a sentimental, historical attachment to the land.
The combination of these factors makes for a heady cocktail. While Israel in 2004 is no longer a country of rigid ideologies, a version of these concepts may be said to form the bedrock view of a majority of Israeli Jewish voters. However, for important figures in Likud, the combination can no longer be sustained.
They consider that the maintenance of the strong Jewish state structure with its western and liberal democratic system – the creation of which was always for rightwing Zionism a primary goal – may now be endangered by the insistence on maintaining national heritage in the desired dimensions.
This consideration derives not from any external Arab military threat, nor from international condemnation of Israeli policies, which tends to provoke only contempt. The factor that is leading figures such as trade and industry minister Ehud Olmert towards support for unilateral withdrawal is that of demography.
As he himself expresses it: “It’s only a matter of time before the Palestinians demand ‘one man, one vote’ – and then, what will we do?” This scenario would emerge if, in the absence of a coherent border, the Palestinian Arabs were to achieve a decisive majority of the population between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. This would enable them to frame their struggle as one for the rights of a majority population, rather than for one side in a bitter ethno-national dispute – and it could spell disaster for the Jews of Israel.
A number of counter-positions to Olmert’s have sprung up on the right. At the extremes, there are the advocates of a policy of expulsion of the Palestinian population, but these find little support outside the lunatic fringe.
Within Likud, senior figures are pioneering the opposition to unilateralism. Most articulate among them is former defence minister Moshe Arens, who argues that since Israel’s final borders have not yet been set, demographics is a non-issue. The majority of the Palestinian Arab people within the area under Israeli control are not, and will not become, Israeli citizens. The key issue in this dispute, of course, is the position of Ariel Sharon. The prime minister has rejected Olmert’s demographic concerns, in tones similar to those used by Arens. Nevertheless, Sharon has also outlined his own plan for “disengagement” from the Palestinians, along lines similar to those advocated by Olmert, and the indications are growing that he is serious about it.
Recently Olmert, considered the Israeli politician closest to Sharon, announced that the clock is counting down to the start of unilateral moves. If Sharon truly means to move forward, it is hard to see what considerations other than the demographic can be underlying the stark change in his thinking.
Undoubtedly, progress within the framework of the road map would be preferable from Israel’s point of view. A unilateral arrangement can offer no long-term solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the broader Arab world. At the same time, the urgency of the hour demands action.
There are growing voices on the Palestinian side calling for the abandonment of the two-state solution and the adoption of a strategy of demanding a single state, based on an imminent Arab majority, between the river and the sea. Given the stated lack of will of the Palestinian administration to confront terror organisations, progress on the road map is unlikely.
To rule out the possibility of an imposed, unilateral arrangement would effectively make the future of Israel hostage to the Palestinian Authority. This is something a Likud government is unlikely to be willing to do.
As such, unilateral disengagement will and should remain an option for Israel, should it become clear that the Palestinian national movement has decisively and finally abandoned the path of partition.
Jonathan Spyer is a former adviser on international relations to Ariel Sharon’s government; he is currently a research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre, Herzliya, Israel.