THE unresolved dispute over Israeli-occupied territories is a demographic bomb with a long-lit fuse. If current Arab-Israeli peace talks don't produce results, prospects for finding a solution may be swamped by population trends.
Israel seeks to attract Jewish immigration from around the world, especially from the former Soviet Union. In addition, Israel encourages its women to have more children. But the buildup of a Jewish population in Israel based on immigration and fertility pales in comparison to the inexorable population increases of its Middle East neighbors.
Of the estimated 14 million Jews in the world, half live in North America and Europe - areas that provide relatively few Israeli immigrants. Perhaps 3 million to 5 million Jews, mostly in the European republics of the former Soviet Union, are candidates for emigration to Israel.
Prospects for incorporating overseas co-religionists are further limited by the unknown intentions of these Jews from ex-Soviet territories. Some see Israel as a way station to settlement in North America or Europe. Israel experienced a net migration loss in 1981, 1985, and 1986. In August 1990, the Israeli absorption minister said that 30 percent of the Soviet arrivals were not Jews. Even if Israel is successful in attracting all potential immigrants, the pool will be pretty well dried up by the end of the century.
Fertility is no more likely than immigration to provide the Jewish state with greatly increased numbers. The country's TFR (total fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman has in her childbearing years) has fallen from four in the post-World War II years to three today. And women from the former Soviet Union have 30 percent fewer children than their co-religionists in Israel.
Israel's Middle East neighbors (Egypt, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank) have a TFR ranging from close to four children in Lebanon to around seven in Jordan and Gaza. Many countries in the Middle East have the highest level of fertility and rate of population growth in the world, comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa. On average, a Middle East woman gives birth to five children in her lifetime, compared to three by Israeli women. The region's rapid population increases put great pressure on exi sting resources, particularly water.
BY 2010, the Arab populations surrounding Israel (in Egypt, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank) are expected to reach 120 million, compared to Israel's hard-to-reach 10 million. Of Israel's current population of roughly 5 million, moreover, 1 million are non-Jews.
The Jewish state, then, cannot win a "demographic battle." It will find itself surrounded by more and more Arabs vexed by the Palestinian issue. And if a Palestinian agreement is not found to convert arms into plowshares, stability will be further endangered by the addition of millions of young Arabs who demand food, housing, jobs, and other basic needs that only peaceful development can produce.
More and more outnumbered by increasingly radicalized enemies, Israel will have to institutionalize its garrison state. In the long run, this will be financially exhausting and socially corrupting. As remote and difficult as a settlement of the Palestine issue seems now, it will be vastly more difficult to bring peace to the Middle East in 10 or 20 years.
Yet the demographic trends that now threaten the Jewish state, could be turned to Israel's advantage in peacetime. If regional trade and investment opportunities were open, Israel could become the engine of development for the Middle East and derive prosperity from the huge Arab market now denied it.
We are too often preoccupied with the short-term political reasons why a settlement of the explosive Palestinian issue cannot be found at the moment. But we would be better advised to look at the compelling long-term demographic reasons why an agreement must be reached now, before it is too late.