The West Bank, Can Netanyahu Count?

In March, The Yesha Council which represents Israel’s settler movement released a report that outlined the importance of the West Bank to Israel. It also emphasized its historical, strategic and environmental relevance and argued for the Territory’s continued retention and future annexation.

Critically, in a chapter entitled, “Judea & Samaria – (…) – Demographics -Time is on our Side”, the report conveniently eschewed conventional wisdom by declaring that the Palestinians and the “Liberal left” are exaggerating the Arab population in the West Bank by an overwhelming 1.2 million inhabitants. In an effort to lay claim to all of the West Bank, they radically contradicted those that lend credence to the widely accepted belief that Israel faces great demographic perils.

Among those the Yesha Council contradicts are the UN, the CIA, Israeli demographers Arnon Soffer, Sergio DellaPergola, past Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert as well as present Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and many others. When it comes to the litmus test question of whether Israel can maintain its Jewish identity and stay democratic, the discrepancy between the faction of demographic revisionists and  the believers of mainstream demographers could well be the canard that sways an unsuspecting citizenry towards an illusory and dangerous future.

Amongst the already numerous threats Israel faces now lies the possibility that some of our most controversial policies may be based on misinformation. If this is the case, shouldn’t such a vital issue rise to the top of Israeli political consciousness?

The revisionist refrain is not new; for years now, the self educated demographer and former diplomat Yoram Ettinger has proclaimed that the Palestinian Authority has been cooking the books while Israeli leaders and others are dupes for believing them. As he writes in one of his articles: “the suggestion that Jews are doomed to become a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is either dramatically mistaken or outrageously misleading”.

Ettinger has become the settlers’ anointed demographic guru. Whereas you must be an authoritative demographer to properly debate Ettinger’s arguments, some of his assertions nevertheless leave one thinking that he may be more of a fortune-teller than a scientist.

For the moment though, let’s ignore the debate over the actual number of inhabitants in Israel and the Territories. Ettinger celebrates the declining Arab birthrate as proof that the Jewish state’s identity is guaranteed and assured. Although, the variance in Jewish and Muslim birth rates has declined to 0.5 births per woman, that simple admission still has the Arab population growing faster than the Jewish one. Furthermore, he appears to ignore the concept of demographic momentum which basically states that even if the Arab birth rate falls below that of Jewish mothers, Arab Israelis, due to their younger average age as mothers and younger population as a whole, will still continue to outpace Jews for many decades to come.

Still, he goes on to make outlandish prognostications. One has him saying that by 2035, in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, Jews will make up 80% of the population. By Ettinger’s own modified numbers, Jews today represent approximately 66% of the population excluding Gaza. Even if we use his lower Arab number estimates and assume an impossible scenario where the Arab population would not increase over the next two decades, the present Jewish population of 6 million would have to more than double in order to reach an unlikely 13 million in the next 22 years for Jews to represent 80% of the population between the same Jordan River and Mediterranean!

Other dubious predictions he concocted over the last year has total Jewish Aliyah rising to 500,000 over the next 10 years. Yet, he later inexplicably revises to the same number for the next five years. For the record, Jewish Aliyah amounted to about 18,000 in 2012. If one believes what Ettinger is saying, then as a  Zionist, one would be more inclined to annexe all of the West Bank and offer citizenship to every Palestinian now living there.

As someone once remarked: “hope is not a strategy”. Here, we find him acting like a snake oil salesman – he sells hope. Zionists may well hope that he’s right, but based on such skewed predictions, it becomes difficult to make the necessary leap of faith in order to trust any of his arguments.

However, others may be tempted to believe him and brushing aside the idealists, if one wants to ascertain empirically  whether an Israeli believes in a one state solution, then we must ask the following question: how many Palestinians live in the West Bank? If the answer given is a number less than two million, then you have surely found yourself a supporter of the one state solution.

Which brings us to Israel’s current leadership and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Notwithstanding his recent announcement that he seeks an agreement with the Palestinians “that will prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state“, we still don’t know how he plans to achieve that goal. Would he accept the outlines of the new Arab League proposal which has serious similarities to Olmert’s peace proposals? Or does he wish to offer the Palestinians minimal territory only – mostly populated areas -, while keeping vast open areas of the West Bank for Israel?

I wouldn’t put it past Netanyahu to say one thing and do something completely different. It is hard to be convinced that he really believes Israel is in danger of becoming a bi-national state. Perhaps an indication of his intentions lies in a January 2012 Haaretz article where he is quoted as saying that there are only 1.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. This would mean about 700,000 to 1 million less inhabitants than mainstream estimates. This is no small detail.

Take into account that Naftali Bennett was Director General of the same Yesha Council that wants to annexe the West Bank and you have a hefty majority in the present government that may not believe there is very much to worry about demographically speaking.

One plus one must equal two. Otherwise, we are simply fooling ourselves. Solid leaders need to make sure that their populations know what the straight facts are. So, does Netanyahu really believe that there are only 1.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank? I, for one, am unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he is the Prime Minister of Israel with the best intelligence agencies at his beck and call. If he is right, why leave any room for doubt?

In such a case, logic would dictate that Israeli officials should immediately and officially call the Palestinians’ “exaggerated” demographic bluff and demand that they prove their numbers. Israelis and Palestinians have the right to know what the facts are. Decisions of such vital importance cannot be made under a cloud of speculation and conjecture.

Why doesn’t the Prime Minister want to clear up this issue? If it is not clarity which he seeks, is it obfuscation, wishful thinking? Or is it just bad judgement? Perhaps by leaving doubt to persist, it relieves the government of any sustained domestic pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians. Whatever the case may be, Israelis deserve better.

Herein lies the final irony: to the delight of Israel’s enemies, Yoram Ettinger, Naftali Bennett, The Yesha Council and even the Prime Minister are aiding and abetting the Palestinian nationalist cause. Insofar as we continue to dither about the totals and bicker about whether or not we are facing a demographic threat, we are delaying action.

Given the mainstream consensus that demographics are not on the Jewish peoples’ side, delay bolsters the desired outcome of the more nationalist Arab factions. These factions leave no doubt as to their hope to form a Palestinian majority west of the Jordan River. Should that day come, Israel will be forced to make some stark choices and hard decisions. At that time, a two-state solution may no longer be a realistic option. If so, we would then have the demographic revisionists to thank for such a dramatic outcome.

About the Author
Robert is a freelance political analyst and commentator concentrating on Israeli politics and the Jewish world.