w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Demographic politics

By Aluf Benn

A few weeks ago, the National Security Council in the Prime Minister's office held a discussion about a sensitive subject: the naturalization of Palestinians from the territories who married Arab Israelis. Most of the speakers were legal experts who analyzed the right to acquire citizenship. But the council also invited experts on demography to present the impact of family unification on the numerical ratio between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

"Demography," meaning anxiety about an Arab majority, has lately taken over the shaping of national policy. On the right, the slogan goes, "no Arabs, no terror," and they preach for mass expulsions. On the left they speak about "a Jewish minority between the sea and the river," which means escaping the territories to save Zionism. Arab birthrates are higher than Jewish ones, immigration is at a trickle, and experts compete with gloomy forecasts whether the "moment of the demographic tie" will arrive in another five years or in fact it already happened without anyone noticing.

The solution of withdrawal from the territories is no longer enough for the angry prophets of demography, professors Arnon Sofer and Sergio Della Pergola. They recommend surgery in which Israel also gets rid of the residents of Wadi Ara and the Triangle, lest the Arabs of those districts multiply and start demanding their national rights. The idea is now shared by Avigdor Lieberman on the right, many on the left, and Henry Kissinger.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who used to deny vehemently the existence of a demographic problem, has adopted it on his way from the settling right to the pragmatic center. Once he even wondered out loud in the presence of a journalist about handing over Umm al-Fahm to the Palestinian Authority, but the next day he denied it.

Ehud Olmert uses demographic rationales for his explanations about why to leave the West Bank. Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes the withdrawal from the territories, declared that the demographic problem "is focused on the Arabs in Israel," and even came up with a contraception, cutting the child allowances, which he claimed slows down the Bedouin birthrate. (For the finance minister's information, the latest Bank of Israel study disproves the connection between the size of the welfare child allowances and the size of Arab families).

The records about the birth rates in the Palestinian Authority, the Triangle and the Galilee, which once only interested statisticians, are now the basis for debate. Are the Arabs having fewer children, or did the intifada actually spur the birthrate? Experts wonder how to develop family planning and social cutbacks that would encourage Jews to have more children and Arabs have less.

The latest hit is the report by a rightist group from Israel and the U.S. that says there are far fewer Palestinians in the territories than was previously believed. Its findings are controversial and debatable, but it smashed the monopoly over the data and forecasts, held by a handful of researchers.

The entire discussion is disgusting and misses the point. Assuming that there were only a million Arabs in the Triangle and territories, with the birthrates of Finland and Luxembourg, would that make the occupation right, just, correct? If the occupation and settlements and discrimination against Israeli Arabs are morally flawed, damage Israel's stature internationally and harm its social resiliency, then it should be stopped irrespective of the number of Arabs.

The disciples of the "demographic rationale" enjoy all possible worlds. They support withdrawal from the territories like the left, and appear to be Arab haters like the right. The "security" left turned into the "demographic" left during the intifada. Between the suicide bombings and Arafat's speeches about millions more marching to Jerusalem, it was difficult to talk about the moral burden of the occupation and much easier to hope the Arabs simply would disappear. One can only hope that the calmer atmosphere Mahmoud Abbas has brought will also moderate the domestic debate in Israel and at least prevent its deterioration into even worse forms of racism.