Israeli demography

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ONE of the Israeli responses to King Hussein's withdrawal of his claim to the West Bank has been a renewed call for annexing the occupied territories. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has so far resisted the pressure from his far right to fill the vacuum created by Jordan, but there are still many Israelis who believe that the ``Palestinian problem'' will disappear by assimilating it. The proponents of annexation continue to reject the notion that the territories represent what other Israelis refer to as a ``demographic time bomb.'' Most Israelis have argued that Israel cannot remain a Jewish state if it incorporates the occupied territories, since the Palestinians would alter the nation's demographic balance. The result would be a binational state in which Arabs would wield substantial power. The far right's answer to this is to deny the Palestinians in the annexed territories the right to vote. The consequence of that would be the end of Israeli democracy.

Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, offered yet another argument in an often reprinted article from the New York Times in 1983. He argued that the ratio of Arabs to Jews within Israel in 1982 was the same as it was in 1967 - 29 percent Arabs to 71 percent Jews. The West Bank's population, he said, had remained almost constant since 1952, increasing only from 742,000 to 747,000 in 1982. Mr. Netanyahu dismissed demographers' concerns with the high Arab birthrate by saying they failed to take into account Arab emigration as well as other factors. Like all annexationists, the ambassador believed that the doomsayers neglected the possibility that the percentage of Jews would increase as a result of a surge in Jewish immigration.

Five years later, it is clear that the predictions of the demographers and not the ambassador have come true. According to the latest data, recently published by the leading expert on the territories, Meron Benvenisti, the Palestinian population has increased to 813,000 in the West Bank and 525,000 in the Gaza Strip. These figures, based on the latest information available (1985), do not include another 125,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem. The annual increase has been about 3 percent, with migration and infant mortality rates declining.

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A recently formed Committee on the Demographic Problem notes that there are 630,000 Arab children under age eight in Israel and the territories today, compared with 590,000 Jewish children. The proportion of Jews in Israel and the territories combined has declined to 62 percent. Mr. Benvenisti's West Bank data project predicts that this proportion will decline gradually until the year 2010, when the Arab population will equal that of the Jews.

The right wing's great hope for massive Jewish immigration remains nothing more than a dream. The Jews from the Western nations have demonstrated over the last four decades that they are quite content to stay where they are and profess their love of Israel from afar. After the masses of Jews from Arab countries were brought to Israel, the only large group of exiles remaining who might be able to infuse the country with human resources is in the Soviet Union. The Soviets are still unwilling, however, to permit emigration of all the Jews who want to leave. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Soviet Jews who do emigrate choose to live outside Israel.

Those who see Hussein's actions as an opportunity for Israel to annex Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip ignore reality. Thousands of Jews are not going to suddenly move to Israel, and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs in the territories are not going to leave. Israel can still choose between maintaining its Jewish and democratic character or becoming the permanent overlord of a hostile population that in the near future will equal its own. I trust that the voices of reason will prevail.

Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst in Washington, D.C. specializing in Middle East affairs.

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