Advocates of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often argue that demographics loom as an existential threat to Israel’s continued existence as a democracy and a Jewish state. However, the demographics argument presents a false dichotomy because there is no threat to a Jewish majority within Israel’s borders. The threat would only exist if Israel were to annex both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which it has no intention of doing and which no entity will force Israel to do. Rather than reflecting facts, demographics are often used for political reasons when discussing the perpetual conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
- Israeli Jews account for 74.8 percent of Israel’s population, and in 2015 the fertility rate for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs converged at 3.13 children per woman from both populations.
- When calculating the demographics of Israel, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the population is already almost 50 percent Jewish and 50 percent Palestinian, though Palestinian birth rates are falling.
- Israel has no interest in annexing all of the West Bank or retaking the Gaza Strip; at most, Israel would annex Area C of the West Bank, home to a relatively small Palestinian population.
- In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demographics are typically used to buttress political positions rather than elucidate facts.
On March 21, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama said the following to an eager crowd at the Jerusalem International Convention Center: “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.” Obama is not the first to raise this idea, and he will not be the last. The “ticking demographic time bomb” argument – that Israel cannot continue to exist as both a Jewish state and a democracy because Palestinians will make up the majority of the population within 10 to 20 years – has been the Israeli left’s key supporting evidence for all the policies it has supported since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. In addition, almost every U.S. administration since 1967 has used this argument when Israel has built settlements, cracked down on the local population, or otherwise done something in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip that Washington doesn’t like. The Palestinian Authority uses demographics as further evidence of the legitimacy of its desire for an independent Palestine. Despite the argument’s frequent use, its accuracy is rarely explored. This is the sole and modest goal to which this piece aspires.
Israeli Arab youths play after school in the town of Tira, Israel, in this 2003 file photo. In 2015, the fertility rate for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs converged at 3.13 children per woman from both populations. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
We should start by saying that predicting demographic changes is extremely difficult. There are many variables that cannot be accounted for in a single model since fertility rates can be affected by economics, politics, advances in medical technology, war, immigration and natural disasters, just to name a few factors. The safest approach to understanding and predicting demographics is to develop a clear grasp of the current situation. From there, it is possible to make informed judgments, but even then, a certain amount of guesswork is involved.
The first challenge one faces when trying to understand the demographic situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is defining borders. In the model of a two-state solution, a Jewish state is created within some version of the 1967 borders before the Six-Day War, and a Palestinian state is created within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In this scenario, the demographics are straightforward for the State of Israel retaining its large majority Jewish population. On Dec. 29, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) published a brief report on the demographic makeup of the current state of Israel. According to these figures, 6.5 million Jews live in Israel, accounting for 74.8 percent of the population. There are also 1.8 million Arabs, roughly 20.8 percent of the population. This jibes with official Palestinian numbers, which indicate that about 85 percent of Israeli Arabs (1.5 million) are Palestinians. The remaining residents, approximately 400,000, are unidentified “others.”
Within these generally defined borders, the fertility rate is not a significant concern for Jewish Israel. Per the latest available data from the CBS, the fertility rate for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs was an identical 3.13 children per woman in 2015. This means that Israel has no concerns regarding population growth since 2.1 is the necessary fertility rate for such growth. It also means that Israel has no concerns relative to its Arab population because the Israeli Arab fertility rate is not appreciably greater than the Jewish population’s, and it is also declining. The convergence of the fertility rate in the Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab communities is a relatively recent phenomenon; as recently as 2002, the fertility rate for Israeli Arab women was 4.19 compared to 2.63 for Israeli Jewish women.
Part of the increase in the Israeli Jewish fertility rate can be ascribed to the high birth rates of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Haredi population, but the impact is generally overstated. A CBS demographic forecast published in 2009 estimated that the average fertility rate of Haredi women in Israel was 6.2 children, though the study predicted that this rate would decrease slightly over the next two decades. Even so, a Pew Research Center study published in March 2016 estimated that the Haredim make up only 8 percent of Israel’s population – just under 700,000 total. The Haredi fertility rate explains some of the rise in the Israeli Jewish birth rate, but not all of it. Another cause is immigration, which continues to boost Israel’s Jewish population. A total of 15 percent of all Jewish population growth in 2016 came from migration, marked, as in previous years, by high numbers of Jews emigrating from Russia, Ukraine and France (roughly 7,000 for each group). This is opposed to a much smaller increase in the Israeli Arab population due to immigration, at only 4 percent.
The demographic situation is much different when the populations of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are considered in addition to the Israeli population. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) refers to these Palestinian territories as “historic Palestine.” (Less politically charged terms might be “Mandate Palestine” and “British Palestine.”) According to data released by PCBS on Dec. 29, the demographic picture is much different within this broader set of borders – the population is 50.2 percent Jewish and 49.8 percent Arab, with the Arab population on track to become the majority population in 2018. According to the PCBS, there are 4.88 million Palestinians living in what it calls “the state of Palestine,” 2.97 million in the West Bank and 1.91 in the Gaza Strip. Add these to the 1.53 million Palestinians living in Israel and the total Palestinian Arab population is 6.41 million. This does not include the 5.59 million Palestinians living in Arab countries, such as neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, some of whom are in refugee camps. (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees estimates 1.5 million Palestinians live in such camps, though camps within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are included in this figure.)
It is also in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that the fertility rate issue becomes real. For reasons that are unclear, fertility rates in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have decreased in recent years. According to the PCBS, the fertility rate for Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was 5.9 children per woman in 1999, whereas the latest data from the PCBS says that from 2011 to 2013, the rate decreased to 4.1 children per woman. This can be further subdivided to 3.7 children per woman in the West Bank and 4.5 in the Gaza Strip. These figures are identical to the figures reported by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in 2015, which is somewhat odd. It is unclear why the PCBS figures have not been updated since 2013 when all other figures pertaining to demographics have been updated to reflect 2016 realities. It could be a simple mistake, but it would also be reasonable to assume that Palestinian fertility rates have continued to decrease since 2013, but Palestinian authorities do not wish to draw attention to it because they have an interest in magnifying the demographic issue.
From the point of view of Israel’s Jewish population, there is no serious demographic challenge or pressure for Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians to create a Palestinian state. However, a demographic challenge would arise if Israel were to annex the West Bank. (Israel has already withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and has no interest in going back.) Therefore, both the United States and the Israeli left have used this as the chief argument that Israel must make peace with a Palestinian state. The problem with thinking in these terms is that even Israel has no interest in annexing the entire West Bank, because it understands that doing so would be a demographic impossibility. The Jewish Home party, a nationalist-religious party further to the right of the Likud-National Liberal Movement on some issues, is a good example of this. Jewish Home rose to increased prominence during 2013 Israeli elections by loudly insisting that Israel should dispense with the peace process and annex Area C of the West Bank, the only West Bank area with a Jewish majority population. This is an idea that Jewish Home’s chairman, Naftali Bennett, continues to push for within Israel.
Bennett is not the first person to have this idea. Though many of the particulars were different, Yigal Allon presented a similar plan to Israeli leadership after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. Allon wanted the Jordan River to be Israel’s border, and he wanted Israel to annex an area of land approximately 6-9 miles wide, west of the border, which happened to be (and remains) relatively unpopulated. Allon also wanted to annex Hebron and Bethlehem – or if not the cities themselves, then at least the areas around them – and he was willing to grant Palestinians in those areas Israeli citizenship to do so. Over time, this became if not explicit then de facto Israeli policy. That policy ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords. As a result of the accords, the West Bank was divided into three areas: A, B and C. Area A contains more than half of the Palestinian population, including its major cities, and is under Palestinian civil and security control (though Israel controls many aspects of daily life in Area A, such as electricity, water and other utilities). Area B, with its majority Palestinian population, is under Palestinian civil jurisdiction, but security is shared between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Area C is under full Israeli control, both from a security perspective and from a civil perspective, and the majority of its population is Jewish. The map above shows the precise delineations of these administrative divisions.
These administrative areas were meant to be temporary steps toward, at long last, a two-state solution. However, the 1995 assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the subsequent collapse of the 2000 Camp David Summit – negotiations between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat – demonstrated that the situation is unsolvable, though many didn’t realize at the time. The “Areas” have remained in place, but the map doesn’t illustrate the demographic situation in Area C, and this is relevant in any discussion of Israeli-Palestinian demographics. According to an independent European Union report in 2010, Area C’s population was composed of roughly 310,000 Israeli settlers and 150,000 Palestinians. Talk of Israel annexing Area C, an alternative to the two-state solution, will become more pronounced in Israeli politics, and it is easy to see why: From a strictly strategic perspective, Area C is the last remaining land in the West Bank that Israel covets from both an ideological and a strategic perspective, and Israel could afford to annex it without having to give Israeli citizenship to a demographic-altering number of Palestinians.
Implications of Demographics
The demographic argument has always been used for explicitly political ends, and it contains a fatal flaw. Its logic suggests that Israel must either annex the West Bank and give all Palestinians Israeli citizenship or lose its democratic character and be forced to occupy a foreign population in perpetuity. This is a false dichotomy. Israel has no intention of annexing most of the West Bank or of granting citizenship to the large majority of the 4.8 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s current policies are predicated on the idea that the peace process has failed, that there is no viable partner on the Palestinian side, and that Israel must maintain its security interests while giving Palestinians living in the West Bank as much freedom and authority as it can, until those Palestinians are willing to recognize Israel on Israel’s terms. One could make a convincing argument that Israel’s current policies aren’t necessarily in the best interest of Israel’s security, but the only point being made in this article is that the demographic argument does not make that case; it seeks to scare, not to convince.
By relying so much on the demographic argument, both the Israeli left and multiple U.S. administrations since the 2000 collapse of Camp David II have shown the extent to which they suffer from a malaise similar to what Geopolitical Futures founder George Friedman has described as the internationalist position throughout the world. The politics of fear can be effective to a degree, but at a certain point, a political ideology has to be for something and not just against something to be effective. For instance, U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was never able to articulate a clear position for the American middle class beyond “Never Trump!” Those deploying the demographic argument make a similar mistake, warning Israel of impending demographic disaster without demonstrating what should be done differently. Additionally, those using the demographic argument fail to face the unnerving idea that one could intelligently argue that Israel’s current approach is in Israel’s best interest, and convincing Israel to make sacrifices, such as giving up settlements and land, by adopting a two-state solution will require more than self-righteous moral indignation.
For decades, prognosticators have predicted doom when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian demographics, saying that Israel will cease to be a Jewish democratic state once the Jewish population is no longer the majority. However, this doom has never come to fruition, and that is because the arguments are usually based on politics and not on basic facts. This piece has attempted to capture a snapshot of current demographics in Israel and Palestine. Accepting that it is hard to speak with certainty about future demographic developments, and also understanding that the situation could change drastically in a few years’ time, we can conclude two things. First, absent an unforeseen and highly disruptive development, Israel faces no impending catastrophe from demographics unless the U.N. develops a formidable army and dispatches it to Jerusalem to enforce its numerous Security Council resolutions demanding that Israel adopt a two-state solution, cease the building of settlements and so on. Second, we can conclude that demographics are used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an increasingly ineffective political device.