democracy or demographic Jewish state?
Monday 09 Februari 2003
Autonoom Centrum, Amsterdam
Translation by Laurence Ranson
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
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.
An overview of the three most
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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