LIKE a modern-day Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet who warned the Jews of impending doom, Arnon Soffer has a blunt, unwelcome message for his Israeli countrymen. The Haifa University geographer says Jews are losing a crucial demographic race to Arabs in ``greater Israel,'' which includes the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Israel itself. Unless Israel gives up control of the territories and makes dramatic efforts to ``Judaize'' Galilee, in northern Israel, the Jewish state could be imperiled, Professor Soffer warns.
``The demography is going to endanger the future of Israel,'' says Soffer, whose conclusions have drawn fierce criticism from many Israeli conservatives.
To make his case, Soffer traces the outline of ``Eretz [Greater] Israel'' on a map of the Levant.
Palestinian Arabs have one of the highest birth rates in the world, he says, citing figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics. The 75,000 Jews who have settled in the West Bank since 1967 have been matched by the natural growth rate of Arabs in just 30 months. By the year 2000 the Jewish-Arab population ratio in Greater Israel could approach parity, making Israel binational.
``Although the general impression is that settlement achievements were all on the Jewish side ... an analysis of various trends throughout Eretz Israel in the past 20 years reveals a very different picture,'' Soffer wrote recently in the Jerusalem Quarterly. ``The Arab population, it turns out, is growing stronger within its area of residence ...''
Inside Israel, the figures have equally grave implications, says the controversial academic.
Three years ago Jews became a minority in north, with Arabs constituting up to 80 percent of the population of western and lower Galilee. In the areas surrounding cities like Nazareth and Shefaram, villages are becoming cities, and cities are merging to become small Arab megalopolises. Meanwhile, housing shortages are prompting Arabs to migrate to Jewish areas, posing the threat of a ``creeping annexation'' of Jewish strongholds like Haifa.
While most Arabs in Israel consider themselves loyal citizens of the Jewish state, Israel may be living on borrowed time, Soffer says. Citing Northern Ireland and the Baltic republics as examples of ethnic unrest, Soffer says it will only be a matter of time before separatist tendencies take root among Israeli Arabs who are daily gaining greater demographic clout and political awareness.
``It has already been proven that wherever there is a small minority that becomes a majority in its own area of residence, an aspiration to secede from the central entity also develops,'' he says.
Some Israelis acknowledge the demographic problem, but insist that Israel must retain the territories as a buffer against a possible future Arab invasion.
According a to poll published earlier this month in the Hebrew daily Haaretz, 52 percent of Israelis now favor the ``transfer'' or forced expulsion of Arabs from the territories, if a way to peace is not found. Six months ago only 38 percent of Israelis favored transfer. Even if a quarter of a million Arabs were expelled, it would not dent the demographic problem, says Soffer.
Nor will Jewish immigrants arrive on Israel's shores in sufficient number to ``Judaize'' the territories and Galilee simultaneously.
The right wing's ``efforts to Judaize the West Bank are a joke,'' says Soffer, referring to the 100-odd Jewish communities in the territories. ``We need to focus our efforts on Galilee where we can do something.''
That means Israel must invest in housing and jobs to make Galilee attractive to the 100,000 Soviet immigrants expected in the next three years. But such a massive diversion of funds would almost certainly be resisted by parliamentarians, most of whom represent influential metropolitan areas.
With two thirds of the Arabs under 20 and thus entering the period of fertility (as compared to 38 percent for Israeli Jews), Israel will have to face up to giving up the territories, spending more in Galilee, and, to forestall the growth of separatist tendencies there, granting full civil rights to Israeli Arabs, says Soffer.
Failure to do so, he says, will set in motion a dark train of events that will ``sound the death knell of the Jewish state'': growing Arab extremism, more repressive Israeli measures to contain it, a weakening of Israeli democracy, high defense expenditures retarding economic growth, reduced immigration, and weaker ties with the Jewish Diaspora.
``People don't want to accept the figures,'' says Soffer. ``But unless the problems [of the territories and Galilee] are solved simultaneously, the problem that is now Israel versus the territories will become a problem of Jew versus Arab in all of Israel.''