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Demographic self-defense

The government must be congratulated for having summoned the courage even if belatedly to cease citing immediate security concerns as its reason for making it more difficult for Palestinians and other Arabs to obtain Israeli citizenship. It's about time official Israel told it like it is and affirmed this state's right to self-preservation.

Announcing the formation of an interministerial panel charged with composing a new immigration bill geared to toughening citizenship criteria for non-Jews, prime minister Ariel Sharon finally said what should have been stated long ago: "The State of Israel has every right to maintain and protect its Jewish character, even if that means that this would impact on its citizenship policy."

In other words, from now on the country will stop pretending that its immigration laws should be devoid of demographic considerations, and seek ostensibly more palatable reasons, like the fear of terror attacks.

Countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria have recently adopted far more stringent citizenship regulations to restrict the inflow of Muslim immigrants. New Danish restrictions have already reduced "family reunion" applications by 60 percent since 2002 alone.

Why should Israel be afraid of doing likewise? Israel, moreover, is far more imperiled than any European state. We have no less of a right than Europe to defend ourselves, both in terms of national character and security. Moreover, paradoxically those beating hard on our gates hail from enemy states with an irredentist agenda.

No doubt Arab immigrants are also enticed by higher living standards here and greater economic opportunities. Though viciously demonized by the Arab media, Israel curiously remains an attractive destination. In view of all this, maintaining the current demographic balance isn't a matter of preference but of life and death.

And yet Israel had been inexplicably wary of admitting this. For some two years, ad hoc restrictions have been in place limiting the rights of Palestinians married to Israeli Arabs to join their spouses here. It needs be stressed that nothing prevents such couples from moving in the other direction and setting up households beyond the Green Line.

These restrictions earned Israel much condemnation internationally and constituted grounds for many petitions to the High Court of Justice, whose decision is now pending. The formal answer to both domestic and foreign critics has been that the Israeli ID awarded to Palestinian spouses had served to facilitate numerous terror attacks and that the ad hoc regulations had been mandated by security concerns.

The latter, however, are transitory, whereas the underlying danger to Israel 's existence as a Jewish state is not.

Palestinians may have very cogent reasons for preferring Israel to their current homes, but Israel's demographic concerns are no less of a good reason to set up legal bulwarks to safeguard the continued existence of the world's only Jewish state. The Arab world, with more than 20 states and combined territory greater than the entire European continent and the US put together, should suffice for those seeking to emigrate.

One of the most frequent arguments in favor of Israel relinquishing the territories currently in dispute is the need to secure its Jewish majority. That is also the reason Israel so steadfastly rejects what the Arabs dub as the "right of return" of Palestinian refuges into Israel proper. But if demographic apprehensions are so acceptable in regard to other issues, why not so far as immigration is concerned? Why would Israel close some doors only to recklessly fling another open?

Unbeknown to most Israelis, one door has been ajar, mostly since Oslo.

There has been a steady stream of Arab immigration under the rubric of family reunification, adding well over 137,000 Arabs to the population. In addition another 100,000 Palestinians are thought to reside here illegally.

Those who cite humanitarian or human rights considerations should not be dismissed out of hand, but neither should such arguments be assumed to prohibit, rather than require, immigration restrictions. As former minister Amnon Rubinstein wrote in this newspaper recently, "Those who claim that human rights demand Israel commit national suicide because without a Jewish majority, there is no Israel are also endangering the standing of human rights."

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