I say that not as a hope or prediction, but as the inevitable result of forces beyond Israel’s control, namely population growth. In 1947, Palestine was 65% Palestinian Arabs, mostly Muslims, and 35% Jewish. Even with no peace treaty, no refugee return, and continued conflict, the land from the Jordan River to the sea will again be 65% Palestinian Arabs in 2047. The only thing that will change that is massive ethnic cleansing, a second Naqba. I doubt that will happen.
Today, there are 5 million Jews in Israel. They share the land with 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, 1 million in Gaza, and 1 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, and live in Israel itself. These 1 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are the descendents of the 150,000 Palestinians that did not get ethnically cleansed by Zionists in 1948, and have multiplied their numbers over 6 times in the last 50 years. Overall, the current balance is 10 Jews for every 7 Palestinians (who are 90% Muslim) in Palestine. The key question is what does the future hold?
There are sharp differences between the demography of the Jews and Palestinians. The Jews have a European age structure and fertility pattern. That means that their population is evenly distributed between children, adults, and elderly, and that they have only 2.6 children per women on average. This fertility is higher than the US number of 2.1, mostly because the Orthodox Jews have large families. But the typical secular Jew in Israel has a fertility of 2.0, and they are the majority of Jews. With this fertility and age structure, Israel’s Jews will still increase their number, but at a slow rate.
The Palestinians on the other hand display an exaggerated Third World demographic profile. They are disproportionately young, and have a very high fertility rate. The fertility of Palestinians in Israel is 4.6 births per woman, in the West Bank it is 5.0, and in Gaza it is 6.6. In addition, the under fifteen population of Gaza is 550 thousand and the West Bank is 750 thousand. Israel’s under 15 is 1.6 million, of which 450 thousand are Palestinian. All told, from the Jordan River to the sea, there are 1.1 million Jewish children, and 1.7 million Palestinian. Given the fertility imbalance, when these children are adults the Palestinian ones will have more children per woman than the Jews and the disparity will worsen.
Within Israel itself, only 70% of new births are to Jews, while 90% of deaths are Jews. This is resulting in a rapid demographic change that will accelerate the shift in population. Already Israel is almost 20% Arab, and politics is being changed by that. Despite suffering from severe discrimination, a Palestinian is on Israel’s Supreme Court, and the first Palestinian Cabinet Minister was seated by Barak’s government.
Looking out to 2050, these trends are giving remarkable projections. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the population of Gaza and the West Bank is to reach 10 million, and another 2.5 million Palestinians will be in Israel. The Jewish population might reach 6.5 million. The net result is that Palestinians will outnumber Jews almost 2 to 1. The political implications of this are obvious.
Can Israel avoid this fate? There are two options. One is to rapidly increase immigration. But the world is running out of Jews to send. In 1970, 20% of the world’s Jews lived in Israel, now almost 40% do. The only large concentrations of Jews left are the 5 million in America, and another 1 million in Western Europe. These groups are too assimilated and attached to their own countries for any but the most ideological Zionists to move. In fact, their own numbers are shrinking from intermarriage and low birthrates. In 2050, there will likely be more Palestinians in Palestine than there are Jews in the whole world.
The other Israeli option is to lower Palestinian birthrates. But there can be no Jewish attempt to create population control programs in Palestinian society without being rejected for the political act that it obviously would be. The only alternative way to lower Palestinian fertility is to lift the oppression and improve their socioeconomic status, which would naturally lower fertility as it does everywhere in the world. But that would require dismantling the occupation and the apartheid system in Israel, which would put the long-term success of Zionism clearly in jeopardy. Even with that, the fertility trends could only be changed marginally, and the end result in 2050 will still be a thumping Muslim majority. In fact it could be demographically worse for the Jews, as a real peace would mean significant return of refugees from Lebanon and elsewhere, either to Israel or the West Bank lands.
For Israel, these basic facts are forcing them to make some sort of peace. The Labor Party has said that they went into Oslo primarily because of these demographic concerns and their implications for the long-term success of Zionism. For Palestinians, it should be justifiable cause for hope. But it has real political implications. If time is on their side and victory inevitable, then they should negotiate from that position. The most important thing is getting an agreement that allows the refugees to return to the West Bank at a minimum. Do what is best for Palestinians today, especially the wretched refugees in their scattered camps. The future will take care of itself.