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Last update - 18:07 17/06/2006

A blue-and-white future?

By Shahar Ilan

There is no demographic problem in Israel, there never was one, and most important, there is not going to be one - that is the clear conclusion reached by anyone who accepts the demographic forecast presented by an American-Israeli team of experts. A year and a half ago, this team, headed by former strategy consultant Bennett Zimmerman, kicked up a storm with its contention that there were 2.5 million Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority (West Bank and Gaza) in 2004, and not 3.8 million, as claimed by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, upon whose data most of the demographers rely.

Now the team has published its predictions for 2025. According to the median forecast, 7.5 million Jews will be living in Israel and the West Bank then, constituting 63 percent of the population, as compared to 4.45 million Arabs (of these, 2.25 million in the West Bank), or 37 percent of the population. In other words, for every Arab, there will be two Jews. The population in Israel proper will be 77 percent Jews and 23 percent Arabs - not much different from today.

These are the assumptions that guided the American-Israeli team in its highly optimistic forecast: There are only 1.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank today. The fertility rate of Jews in Israel is higher than that taken into account by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics in its forecasts, while the fertility rate of the Arabs in Israel is plunging. Immigration to Israel is expected to continue in its present scope.

So what about the Gaza Strip? The one area that has been left out of the team's report, for some reason, is Gaza. True, Israel has disengaged from it, so presenting data that exclude it might be considered legitimate. But to completely ignore the Arab population living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan? That doesn't seem logical.

Seeing that Zimmerman's team didn't do it, I took the figures for Gaza and factored them into the demographic forecast for 2025.

The current state of affairs can be described thus: In 2004, according to the U.S.-Israeli group, the strip of land between the Jordan and the sea was 60 percent Jewish and 40 percent Arab. Hebrew University's Prof. Sergio della Pergola, one of Israel's leading demographers, says that since last year the number of Jews and Arabs in the region has equalized. According to the team's median forecast, there will be 7.5 million Jews and 6.2 million Arabs between the Mediterranean and the Jordan in 2025, which is to say, 55 percent Jews and 45 percent Arabs - almost a tie. In other words, there may indeed be a demographic problem, although Zimmerman's data show that it is developing very slowly.

The president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Louis Shabana, claims that the number of Palestinians living in the PA will reach 5 million by 2015. Zimmerman's team predicts only 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in 2025. Demography is also a matter of geography, apparently.

Not just numbers

Zimmerman is not the only one who has his doubts about the predictions of the Palestinian CBS (3.6 million in 2004). Della Pergola's estimate for the number of Arabs in the PA is 3.3 million, and Prof. Arnon Sofer of the University of Haifa is inclined to accept the Israel Defense Forces' figure of 3 million. Ultimately, the debate is not just about numbers, but between those who say that we are looking at a very serious and dangerous demographic problem (Della Pergola and Sofer), and those who say our demographic future looks more blue-and-white than ever (Zimmerman, his Israeli partner Yoram Ettinger and their team of experts).

"If we lop off a few hundred thousand people, the demographic 'tie' only gets pushed off by a couple of years," says Della Pergola. "Does that change anything?"

This dispute has broad political implications, of course, mainly for the question of whether the convergence plan is necessary at all, or could be done without.

Zimmerman et al have convinced us more with the questions they have raised than with their facts and figures. Thanks to them, the Israeli public has learned that the Palestinian figures are only a forecast. The Palestinian CBS itself, with or without a connection to Zimmerman's report, has lowered its estimate for 2004 from 3.8 million to 3.6 million; 200,000 people gone with the click of the mouse.

The Zimmerman team had some major criticisms of the Palestinian forecast. For example, the fertility rate has sharply declined in the territories under PA control, which means that the forecast is inflated by about 300,000 people. The Palestinian CBS also counts the 200,000 residents of East Jerusalem and 150,000 Palestinians living outside East Jerusalem who have received Israeli identity cards. Also, the Palestinians include in their figures 325,000 people who have resettled abroad (the Palestinians deny this). The calculations of their CBS are thus based on an influx of 320,000 people into PA territory. In practice, however, the immigration-emigration balance is negative.

The claim by Zimmerman's team that fertility in the Arab sector in Israel has radically declined is worth noting, especially in view of the fact that it is entirely based on the data of the Palestinian CBS. The most important figure in birthrate predictions is the total fertility rate (TFR) - i.e., the number of children a woman is likely to bear in her lifetime. The TFR for a Muslim woman, which was 4.74 in 2000, has been steadily decreasing. In 2004, it was 4.36; a decline of 8 percent. The TFR for a Jewish woman rose slightly in the same period, from 2.66 to 2.71. There were 92,000 Jewish births in Israel in 2000, and 100,000 in 2004 - an increase of 9 percent. The number of births in the Muslim Arab sector was 36,000 in 2000, with no change in 2004. The rate of births per 1,000 Jewish women rose from 18.7 in 2000 to 19.2 in 2004. The rate of births per 1,000 Muslim women dropped in this period from 37.5 to 33.2 - a decline of 11 percent.

One of the widespread criticisms against the Zimmerman team last year, especially on the part of Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, was that the group had made a presentation rather than publishing research. What this meant in academic terms was that its findings could not be taken seriously or responded to in a proper fashion. A few months ago, the team published an academic research paper under the aegis of Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Research, downloadable from the center's Internet site. A Hebrew translation of the paper will soon be out. Now the findings can be discussed, challenged or rejected - but to ignore them would be folly.

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