Israel's demographic time bomb

Looking back on Israel's victorious 1967 war with its Arab neighbors, Prime Minister Golda Meir said, "We can forgive you for killing our children, but we can never forgive you for forcing us to kill your children."

That feeling of sympathy is absent today as Israelis lash back at the Palestinians with increasing harshness and increasing fatalism about the future of the Jewish state. The end is nowhere in sight.

The call for seven days of peace as a prelude to negotiation has become a sad joke. In one poll, two-thirds of Israelis said they no longer believed that peace is possible. The hope engendered by the Arafat-Rabin-Peres handshake with President Clinton on the White House lawn eight years ago - that Israel would take its place in a peaceful, regional community - is dashed for the foreseeable future. Israel will be maintaining itself in a hostile region, and now without the all-out American support it enjoyed as a free-world bulwark against Soviet clients.

Israel is threatened by not only Hamas bombs, but by a silent demographic offensive. A report last month through the Knesset, Israel's parliament, said that in the whole area west of the Jordan - including Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza - Jews last year represented 50.5 percent of the population; the Arabs, 49.5 percent.

Testifying before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Prof. Arnon Sofer of Haifa University projected that with their higher birthrate, Arabs would constitute 58 percent of this population by the year 2020 and Jews, 42 percent. Without final borders and a clear separation between states, he said Israel faces an existential crisis.

One can imagine Israel under international criticism like South Africa, a minority ruling a majority. Professor Sofer testified that unless the demographic problem is solved, "our country is finished in 17 years, and there will be a collapse."

What is the answer to save the Jewish state? Imposing a wall of separation is probably not feasible. The long-term answer, of course, is an agreement to establish a Palestinian state. And that brings us back to the current crisis.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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