Less than two weeks before election day, Meron Benvenisti has some bad news for Israeli politicians. Dr. Benvenisti, Israel's leading expert on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says those territories hold 200,000 more Palestinians than official Israeli census figures now indicate - and plenty of reasons for Palestinians to be dissatisfied with Israeli rule (see box, Page 28).
A report issued yesterday by Benvenisti's West Bank Data Project challenges premises on which Israel's leading parties have based plans for dealing with the territories, captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The new report gives a figure of roughly 1.7 million for the ``permanent'' Arab population of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem (including residents who are abroad for less than a year).
That Israelis are losing their demographic race with Palestinians at a faster rate may raise doubts about the conservative Likud Party's refusal to swap the territories for peace. That the fastest rate of growth is occurring in areas the liberal Labor Party says it must retain as part of a territory-for-peace compromise may also necessitate a trip back to the drawing boards.
For all of Israel's political factions, the report may stand as an indictment of an occupation administration that in such key areas as housing, hospitals, roads, and water has left Palestinians worse off than they were under Jordanian rule.
``This is not the reason for the intifadah. But if you are looking for some quantifiable facts that would substantiate the very high level of [Palestinian] frustration, I think it can be found here,'' says Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, pointing to the new report entitled ``The West Bank and Gaza Atlas.''
Benvenisti said official population estimates are inaccurate because no census has been conducted in the territories since 1967. Instead, those estimates rely on mathematical models using 1967 census data.
Without accurate census figures, adds Benvenisti, planning for West Bank growth has been impossible, leading to a gap in services and infrastructure that has left Arab residents worse off in some respects than they were in 1967. Two examples: There are fewer hospital beds and fewer miles of roads per 1,000 Palestinian residents than there were 21 years ago.
``They don't need to quantify the hardship,'' says Benvenisti of the Palestinians. ``But we as planners have to, and we understand that the situation is very, very serious.''
The report was released just as the Israeli Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the ultra-right-wing Kach Party - which advocates the forced expulsion of Arabs living in Israel and the occupied territories - to participate in the Nov. 1 parliamentary elections.
The biggest beneficiary of the decision to disqualify Kach will be Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's conservative Likud Party, which is expected to rake in at least half the Kach voters. Both parties run strong in Jewish settlements and poor urban suburbs. The decision could give between one and two ``mandates,'' or Knesset (parliament) seats, to Likud, which could be crucial in a razor-close election.
The decision to disqualify Kach has raised troubling questions regarding freedom of speech in Israel and the difficulty of reconciling full democracy with the existence of a Jewish state.
The followers of Brooklyn-born party leader Meir Kahane have said that Arabs would have to be transferred or consigned to second-class citizenship to preserve the Jewish character of Israel.
``Anyone in this room [who] thinks Zionism and Western democracy are simpatico is either a fool or a knave,'' Mr. Kahane told a press conference after the announcement of the verdict.
The same rationale used against Kach was invoked in efforts to disqualify the ultra left-wing party Progressive List for Peace to stand for election.
Attorneys representing two right-wing parties, one of which voted against Kach in the initial Israeli election commission ruling, charged that by giving expression to Arab nationalist feeling inside Israel the PLP challenged the basic Jewish character of the state.
In the end the court failed to find convincing evidence the PLP was involved in efforts to overthrow the state of Israel.
In another report issued yesterday, the West Bank Data Project condemned what it called the ``horrifying increase'' in the number of human-rights violations that have resulted from Israel's crackdown on the 10-month Palestinian uprising.
The 60-page document, entitled ``The Price of Insurgency: Civil Rights in the Occupied Territories,'' reports ``a pervasive system of bureaucratic harassment'' by the Israeli civil administration that governs the territories.
The report also charges a ``double standard of justice'' administered by Israeli military and civil courts. In one example cited by the Data Project a 22-year-old Palestinian woman was imprisoned for nine months for throwing stones near the Arab village of Beita while a Jewish settler, charged with manslaughter for killing a Palestinian youth fleeing a road block, was released on bail.