Israel's 'cloud of demographics'

A dovish politician is forcing even hawkish Israelis to consider ceding land to the growing population of Palestinians.

Even now, nearly four months after it was first published, an article by a dovish Israeli politician continues to irritate and appall his ideological opponents. But its main point - the need for Israel to cede land - is now being voiced by more hawkish Israelis as well.

Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Israeli parliament and a leading defender of the idea that Israel and a Palestinian state can coexist in peace, wrote in an Israeli newspaper in August that the "Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer-security programs, or antimissile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed."

These may be harsh words, but no one paid them much notice. Then Mr. Burg's article started to appear in translation abroad - in the US, Europe, and elsewhere - and that's when his critics started to push back.

Early this month, Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau blamed Burg and other Israeli critics of government policy for contributing to "the Jew-hatred sweeping all of Europe."

"A reasonable person has gone beyond the limits of reason, responsibility, and integrity," says Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Sallai Meridor, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, positions Burg once held, told an audience in Jerusalem in November that Burg had "revealed a degree of understanding for baby killers."

The political got personal. Burg had asked his father-in-law, Lucien Lazare, a distinguished historian, to translate the article so it could appear in the French newspaper Le Monde. A few weeks after the piece was published, French-speaking members of Mr. Lazare's synagogue in Jerusalem wrote him an open letter, critical of Burg's ideas and Lazare's role in disseminating them to the outside world. The letter ended, "I will not shake your hand."

Quiet tremors of hope?

So while the level of Israeli-Palestinian violence may have abated in recent weeks - at least for Israeli civilians - the level of debate remains intense. A piece in the Jerusalem Post newspaper last week, under the headline, "Quietly, the ground is shaking," argued that "[a]fter three years of battle-weariness and hopelessness, people here seem ready to start creating a different future."

The impetus for this discussion - and the core of Burg's article - is the growing realization that Israel is losing the demographic war with the Palestinians, even as it emerges more or less triumphant from the battles of recent years.

Israelis have long ruminated over the paradox of their situation: If they maintain control over the Palestinian territories in the service of the idea that Jews should govern the entire "land of Israel," they will need to figure what to do with the Palestinians. Israeli hard-liners argue for expulsion or "transfer," but that step would be internationally unpopular. Another option is to deprive the Palestinians of political rights, but this "apartheid" approach would also draw international opprobrium. A third option is to make the Palestinians citizens - something Israel has already done with Palestinians who did not flee their lands in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war - a step in keeping with the desire of the majority of Israelis to maintain a full-fledged democracy.

The problem is that there so many Palestinians. As it is, Burg argued in an interview this month, "Between the Jordan [River] and the Mediterranean [Sea], somewhere between next year and two years' time, there will be born the first Palestinian ... [of] the Palestinian majority."

Crucial choice

"What do you give up - assuming you can't have them all - land, system, or majority?" asks Burg, a balding, blue-eyed, and fit man who speaks English with an accent that has often been likened to Arnold Schwarzenegger's. Burg's answer: "I'll never give up democracy, I'll never give up the Jewish majority. With difficulties and pain, I compromise the land."

Even more hawkish Israelis, such as Mr. Olmert, are now willing to voice this view in public. Olmert gave an interview, published a week ago, in which he too intimated that Israel would have to remove settlements and cede control much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Why? "Above all hovers the cloud of demographics," he told columnist Nahum Barnea of Yedioth Ahronoth. "It will come down on us not in the end of days, but in just another few years."

Burg's article did more than address the inevitability of Palestinian population increase. He attacked the current Israeli government as "an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers," and he had this to say about the actions of the Palestinians: "Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism." This sort of "understanding of baby killers" - in Mr. Meridor's phrase - is considered heresy in Israeli mainstream debate.

For Burg, the time has come for the Israeli left to begin to say such things. Until a little over a year ago, Burg's Labor Party was in a coalition government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Perhaps as a result, voters roundly rejected Labor in recent elections. "People were so angry at us," Burg says. "They didn't want even to look at us."

Now, says Daniel Ben Simon, an Israeli journalist who has written sympathetically about Burg's father-in-law, "Three years after the intifada, the awakening of the Israelis has started."

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