A perilous game of numbers is being played out by Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank, and the stakes are high. Israeli settlers in the area are touting figures showing a leveling off of the West Bank Palestinian population in recent years.
World Zionist Organization officials predict Jewish-Arab population parity on the West Bank within 30 years, through a mass influx of Jewish settlers (now only 4 percent of West Bank residents) combined with Palestinian emigration.
But Israeli opponents of West Bank settlement challenge these figures and warn that annexation of the West Bank to Israel could lead to an Arab majority in Israel.
Moreover, worsening economic and political conditions in the Arab world are slowing the historical outflow of job-seeking Palestinian emigrants from the West Bank. In the past this outflow has kept the Palestinian population down and eased Israel's task of occupation.
Projections of Jewish and Arab population growth on the West Bank have moved from the realm of statistics to high politics. Prime Minister Menachem Begin dismisses opposition Labor Party fears about the demographic threat to the Jewish character of the state posed by keeping the occupied areas.
''Let us not stand in fear of demography,'' Mr. Begin told the 30th Zionist Congress last December. ''The Jewish majority is large, and there is no reason to believe that it will decrease.''
On the surface, Mr. Begin seems to have reason for his confidence. Today in ''Eretz Israel'' (pre-1967 Israel plus the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), there live about 3.3 million Jews, compared with 1.85 million Palestinians. Of the Palestinians, 650,000 are citizens of Israel proper, about 720,000 live in the West Bank (not including east Jerusalem), and about 485,000 reside in the Gaza Strip.
But the demography of the area still remains in doubt.
Despite an Arab birthrate far higher than that of Israeli Jews, the ratio of Jews to non-Jews in Eretz (greater) Israel remained almost stable from 1970 to 1981: 65 percent Jews to 35 (inching toward 36) percent non-Jews. The reason: heavy Palestinian emigration. About 100,000 West Bankers, mostly men seeking work, left during this period because of the limited natural resources and economic opportunity on the West Bank, compared with the Arab oil states and the West.
(In Gaza, a far poorer area with many more refugees in shantytowns, where Palestinians are stateless, emigration is far more difficult - and lower - than for West Bankers who hold Jordanian passports. Jewish settlers are not seeking population parity there. Arabs in Israel proper, who have Israeli citizenship, cannot travel in the Arab world and have better - though still often problematic - economic opportunities in Israel.)
Palestinians have poured out of the West Bank for the last 30 years, under Jordanian as well as Israeli rule, according to Prof. Uziel Schmelz, a senior official at the Israeli Bureau of Statistics.
From 1952 to 1961, the West Bank population grew annually at a rate of only 0 .07 percent a year, because 150,000 residents emigrated over that period.
West Bank emigration has been based on politics as much as on economics. Under Jordanian rule, the Hashemite monarchy left the Palestinian West Bank underdeveloped while building industry and institutions on the east bank of the Jordan River. Under Israel, according to Bank of Israel studies, the West Bank economy has become totally dependent on Israel, with no development of its own.
Visible West Bank prosperity is based on the salaries of about 38,000 Palestinian laborers who commute daily to fields, factories, and construction sites in Israel. To a larger extent it is based on remittances sent by family members working abroad, in the oil-rich Gulf states, Jordan, and the West. Such remittances pay for much of the Arab home-building boom on the West Bank.
Palestinians abroad who were present on the West Bank in 1967 and received identity papers issued by the Israelis have the option of returning home. All of the other estimated 2.6 million Palestinians living outside Israel's current boundaries, whether they were born on the West Bank or within Israel's pre-l967 borders, can only apply to visit.
Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, during which Israel captured the West Bank, an Israeli economic boom from 1969 to 1974 absorbed more record numbers of West Bank - and Gaza - laborers and created a sharp drop in net Palestinian emigration. But starting in 1974, an Israeli economic slowdown, combined with the oil boom in the Arab world, prompted a renewed Palestinian outflow.
The most talented Palestinians often have no option but to go. An educated Palestinian, or any youth who wants to advance beyond manual labor, can find only limited opportunities on the West Bank. ''There is no need for our skills, '' says Riadh, a tall, slender 1983 graduate in business administration from the West Bank's Bir Zeit University, ''because we have no big firms here and few institutions of our own.''
Given a choice, many students would prefer to stay on the West Bank, both for family reasons and to show ''steadfastness'' to Palestinian land. Albert Aghazarian, director of public relations at Bir Zeit, says, ''I have 120 student applications for an administrative job here, though many could find much-better-paying jobs abroad.'' He adds that some students accept laborer jobs in order to stay.
Political tensions also drive many families to send or take their sons abroad to work or study to reduce the risk that they will be arrested for political demonstrations.
Against these pressures to leave the West Bank, there are some new signs that large-scale voluntary emigration may be on the wane.
In 1982, according to Professor Schmelz of the statistics bureau, ''Net emigration from the West Bank dropped perhaps 50 percent in comparison with recent years.''
The reasons: fewer jobs in the Arab Gulf nations due to the sliding oil economy, combined with a worsening political climate for Palestinians both in the Gulf and in Jordan.
Following the break-off of the dialogue between Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat in April, Jordan has imposed a variety of restrictions on Palestinians wishing to cross from the West Bank to the east bank and thence to the Arab world via the Jordan River bridges. These are both to demonstrate Jordanian power and to forestall any panicky large-scale exodus of West Bankers to Amman.
Amid the scattered stone buildings of the Bir Zeit campus, the new problems of emigration are a hot topic of conversation. The new bridge restrictions are confusing and selectively enforced. ''The rules change constantly,'' complains Abdul Hafez Abu Sneina, a 1983 graduate in business administration. ''Some days all young men are turned back at the bridge.''
Israeli regulations require West Bank Palestinian youths under age 26 to remain outside Israel for nine months if they cross the bridges, but Jordan now restricts West Bank high school graduates to a one-month stay, after which they are inducted into the Jordanian Army.
Bir Zeit students say they must have a document proving they have work or graduate school admissions outside Jordan before being permitted over the bridges. But this creates a Catch-22 situation, since many need to cross the bridge in order to pursue visas or job interviews in Amman.
Moreover, the students say Gulf jobs and visas are getting much harder to come by. ''My brother has been waiting seven months in the US, with an American degree and 15 months' more work experience, for a Saudi visa,'' says Yusuf Nasser, an instructor at Bir Zeit. ''When things get tight, the first to go are the Palestinians.''
''Sixty percent of our business graduates went abroad last year to look for jobs,'' notes Dr. Bakr Abu Kishk, dean of Bir Zeit's faculty of business and commerce, ''but this year we don't know.''
Some university workers worry that the Gulf states might push out Palestinians wholesale. ''The lesson of Nigeria (which deported hundreds of thousands of Ghanaian workers after its oil economy slumped) might repeat itself in the Gulf with the Palestinians,'' says Dr. Saeb Erekat, director of external relations in Najjah University in Nablus. Forty percent of the 1982 graduating class left for the Gulf. ''With the weakening of the PLO, who would stop this?'' he asks.
Many Palestinians speak openly of fears that the Israeli government - or Jewish settlers - may try to ease the ''demographic danger'' by forcing them to leave. The recent machine-gun attack by masked men at Islamic University in Hebron, which killed three Arab students, has fanned such fears despite condemnations of the attack by Israeli leaders. The killers are unidentified but West Bankers believe they were Jews.
''There are rumors the Israelis will open a road through the town of Bir Zeit to connect several settlements,'' a Bir Zeit student said. ''In the next few years we may have settler fanatics for neighbors.
''Today, Hebron University, tomorrow Bir Zeit.''
Palestinian lawyer Jonathan Kuttab worries that Israel's need to solve the Palestinian demographic problem may lead to Israeli actions which one year ago ''were too horrible to contemplate.'' His ''doomsday'' scenario: ''Some major event would occur like a war or an explosion at the Dome of the Rock (Islam's third-holiest shrine in Jerusalem). This would create large public disturbances, giving settlers the excuse to commit a few atrocities on the West Bank and threaten more. Masses of Palestinians would move east.''
Mr. Kuttab's scenario is challenged by both Israeli hawks and doves. Settler leader Hanan Porat insists he ''does not feel it would be acceptable for Arabs to be expelled.'' He adds, ''But this could happen if there were a war.''
(Some political observers believe that under former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who talked openly of ousting King Hussein of Jordan in order to establish a Palestinian state on the east bank of the Jordan River, the war-and-mass-flight scenario might have been credible.)
Labor Party stalwart Abba Eban believes that Israel's internal structure would not permit mass deportation. ''It would create revulsion in Israel,'' he says, as well as in the outside world. Mr. Eban also believes that this time, unlike in 1948, ''the Palestinians won't leave. They have learned that once they leave they don't get back, and that they are not welcome in the Arab world.''
While mass deportation may be unlikely, settler calls for deportation of ''troublemakers'' have been echoed by senior officials. Eliahu Ben-Elissar, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told the settler magazine Nekuda that he favored expelling West Bankers to Jordan when they were convicted of stone-throwing.
Israeli military Chief of Staff Moshe Levy and head of Central Command Uri Orr recently submitted a report to Defense Minister Moshe Arens advocating expulsion as punishment for Palestinian rioters.
Under Labor Party rule before 1977, about 200 West Bank leaders were deported and hundreds more chose expulsion over prison. But Jordan has closed its bridges in the past to such deportees in protest against this punishment and would probably refuse to receive them in the future.
West Bank fears were not calmed by deputy Knesset speaker Meir Cohen's remarks earlier this year that if 200,000 to 300,000 Palestinians had been driven from the West Bank during the 1967 war, in the same manner as Palestinians had been expelled from the now-Israeli towns of Lod and Ramle in 1948, the present troubles on the West Bank could have been avoided.
Given the complex economics and political factors involved, Professor Schmelz cautions against drawing hasty conclusions about the West Bank's demographic future. ''Different calculations can lead to the conclusion that there will eventually be an Arab majority . . . or that there will never be such a majority ,'' he warns.
What does seem apparent is that the rate of Palestinian emigration - voluntary or otherwise - will have a major impact on Israel's efforts to match Arab numbers on the West Bank with Jewish settlers, and on the prospects of pacifying a restive Palestinian population. Next: the dream of a Jewish West Bank