There are two ways of looking at the demographic dimension of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians: as a dispute between two peoples with violently conflicting national narratives concerning their right to the land and the nature of their societies; and as a classic north-south encounter.
For Israeli Jews, following the collapse of the peace process and more than three years of violence, the first dimension centers around the perceived threat posed to Israel as a Jewish homeland by Palestinian population growth and migration. If Jews are not an overwhelming majority in Israel, the country will not remain a Jewish and a democratic state–perhaps the only definition of Israel that all Zionists can agree on. This is the key factor pushing right wing Israelis today to embrace some sort of formula for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. It is also a cause for concern with regard to the Palestinian Arab sector in Israel, some 18 percent of the population, which is expected to grow disproportionately in the coming decades.
The north-south dimension is ostensibly more manageable and less political. Like virtually all advanced economies, Israel has reached a degree of development whereby it requires cheap outside labor to do jobs that Israelis don’t want to do. Prior to the first intifada (1988-92) this demand was filled by Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Since then Israel has imported foreign workers from as far afield as China, with Palestinian workers allowed into Israel only in small numbers and when the security situation permits, and larger numbers entering illegally.
But these arrangements have generated two demographic problems that, in turn, nourish the first, territorial, dimension. One is Palestinian workers who remain in the country illegally, and whose presence is perceived by Israelis as a form of illicit "return" that derives from the territorial dispute. A second is non-Palestinian foreign workers who remain here illegally and begin to raise families whose presence also affects the Jewish nature of the state.
Notably, as long as the peace process with the Palestinians appeared to promise a reasonable political solution and the security situation was under control, Israeli governments did very little to counter these demographic problems and threats. Everyone assumed, however unrealistically, that the advent of a Palestinian state would afford the best opportunity to rationalize all the demographic problems–as if Palestinians would not continue to enter and live in Israel illegally and the high annual population growth rate of the Negev Bedouin would somehow decline.
It was the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of violence more than three years ago that made Israelis aware of long term Palestinian intentions to exploit the refugee/right of return issue, illegal return, and the role of the Israeli Arab community in order to undermine Israel demographically. And it was the security crisis posed by the near-existential threat of Palestinian suicide bombings that led Israel, however reluctantly, to adopt a policy of physical separation–the fence–that appears to offer a means of at least mitigating the demographic threat as well.
Today a large majority of Israeli Jews, left and right, seeks to use physical barriers to keep Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from entering Israel. This may solve some of the demographic problems, but it is liable to create new political ones. On the one hand we can now contemplate orderly procedures, using advanced technology, for enabling Palestinian day laborers to enter Israel in the morning and leave at night, thereby to a large extent neutralizing the demographic aspect of Israel’s north/south problem and enabling it to cease dependency on foreign workers who end up staying here.
On the other hand those Israelis, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who think they can achieve a viable demographic and political solution by fencing in a bantustan in 50 percent of the West Bank are only exacerbating both problems. And since a realistic two state solution appears to be impossible to negotiate with the current Palestinian leadership, Israel must be very careful in carrying out unilateral fence-building and withdrawal schemes. The fence must be on or near the green line in order to reinforce the only conceivable permanent border; the withdrawal must provide benefits for both Israel (security, demography) and Palestine (land) without foreclosing any political options or creating any new and problematic political or geographic facts, e.g., by annexing or settling additional lands in the West Bank.
As for Israel’s own burgeoning Arab population, a green line fence, or peace, would give us a chance to address the pressing challenges of economic and social integration and elimination of the insane financial incentives for child-bearing that the state has been providing. At the end of the day, less than 12 percent of the Israeli population are Muslims, and only a portion of them cultivate a religious and political outlook that threatens Israel from within. This is a containable threat.
Finally there is the issue of the very high population growth rate of Palestinians in the West Bank and especially Gaza (over five percent annually). Currently, for obvious reasons, making babies is considered a patriotic duty for Palestinians. Palestinian economic planners hesitate to point out that even under the best of political circumstances economic growth will be impossible under such demographic conditions. But eventually, in order to have a viable state, Palestinians will have to come to terms with their own internal demographic threat. The most Israelis can hope for is to make this largely a Palestinian problem rather than an Israeli problem.