The Phony-Number Maker


An article published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz a few weeks ago has stirred the debate in certain Israeli circles about the one-state solution—the idea that Israelis and Palestinians might be better off sharing the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea rather than carving out a separate Palestinian state. Normally, proponents of "binationalism" come from the far left and academia (think of the late British historian Tony Judt). The twist in Haaretz was that a coterie of one-state advocates has arisen on the right among prominent right-wing Israelis, mostly settlers. And they said they were willing to give Palestinians full voting rights.

Sounds strange, right? Settlers have often pushed to annex the Palestinian territories but almost never to enfranchise Palestinians. That's because of what's known here as "the demographic time-bomb"—the mathematical model that shows how the Palestinian population will eventually outstrip the Jews. Meaning that, if Palestinians could vote, Israel would lose its Jewish majority—and, eventually, its Jewish character. Yet a growing number of right-wing Israelis are now asserting that the demographic balance in Greater Israel is more favorable to Jews than previously thought. In part, this is bound up with Israel's withdrawal in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, whose 1.5 million Palestinians settlers no longer count in their annexation scenarios. But it's also the result of a revisionist arithmetic designed to show that Palestinians actually number far less in the West Bank than the official figure of 2.5 million—and that they are growing more slowly than the traditional projections.

The main purveyor of this new math is Yoram Ettinger, a retired diplomat and a staunch believer in Israel's right to all of Judea and Samaria, the biblical term for the West Bank. Ettinger is not a demographer by training; he holds degrees in business administration and accounting. But he spent the past several years poring over data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and other sources, and he discovered what he says are miscalculations in (among other things) the Palestinian birthrate and migration figures (officials at the PCBS did not respond to a request for comment). He concludes that Israel could maintain a long-term Jewish majority of 67 percent if it annexed the West Bank, compared with the traditional projection of parity between Jews and Arabs within a few years of annexation. That means the occupation, in his view, may never have to end.

Israel's leading demographers dispute much of Ettingers analysis; we'll get to them in a moment. But it's worth examining his assertions, if only to understand how some Greater Israel proponents envision melding three constructs that to most observers are so obviously incompatible: annexing the West Bank, maintaining Israel's Jewish character, and preserving its democratic system of government.

I met Ettinger in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, where for about two hours he showed me a power-point presentation on his laptop computer. He has been showcasing his data since 2006 to just about anyone willing to listen, including academics, lawmakers, and, earlier this year, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not made time for him, Ettinger says the prime minister's staff saw the data and was impressed. Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's National Security Adviser, has twice in the past four years invited Ettinger to present his findings at the Herzliya Conference, which is one of the most prestigious gatherings in Israel of thinkers and policymakers—and which Arad chairs.

Ettinger makes three broad points: that Palestinians have substantially inflated their numbers in the West Bank by, for example, continuing to count people long after they've taken up residence abroad; that the Palestinian fertility rate both in the West Bank and in Israel has been declining faster than projected; and that Jewish births have grown significantly over the past 15 years, thanks mainly to the large influx of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union (but also as a result of a moderately rising Jewish fertility rate). "The demographic trend is Jewish," Ettinger concludes. "Anyone claiming that Israel must concede geography in order to secure demography is either mistaken or misleading."

To American ears, this fixation with ethnic head-counting can sound vaguely racist. It's hard to imagine a mainstream political activist in the U.S. openly reassuring whites that their majority is not in jeopardy. But Israel's own designation of itself as a Jewish state means, among other things, that Israelis are stuck constantly monitoring (and even trying to regulate) the demographic balance between Jews and non-Jews. And not just Palestinians, by the way. A debate underway here about whether to offer residency rights to some longtime foreign workers also has demographic overtones.

But how accurate is Ettinger's data? Sergio DellaPergola, a professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and perhaps Israel's most oft-cited demographer, concedes some points to Ettinger—for instance his discovery that the Palestinian figures included an assumption since 2001 of 45,000 net immigration annually, which has not materialized. But on the big issues, Ettinger is either overstating the significance of Palestinian miscalculations or misrepresenting data to substantiate his political viewpoint, according to DellaPergola. Take the Palestinian birthrate, for example. The decline over the past 20 years has been substantial—from about seven children per family to between four and five children. But population growth is a function of more than just birth rate—a matter that Ettinger's presentation leaves out. Age composition is also significant. And since the Palestinian population remains much younger than the Jewish population—the median Jewish age is 30, while the median Palestinian age is about 20--many more Palestinian families are having children, while the Palestinian death rate is significantly lower. As a result, DellaPergola says, the rate of growth among Palestinians is still about twice what it is among Jews.

When you include Gazans in the count (the idea that Israel would somehow be allowed to enfranchise Palestinians of the West Bank while leaving Gazans hard up would never pass muster with the international community that enfranchisement is meant to placate), Palestinians are already approaching the 50 percent mark, according to DellaPergola—a troubling figure for Israelis who want to believe they can both annex the Palestinian territories and retain Israel's Jewish character. But even if Ettinger's numbers are right, the implications aren't much different. "My argument is that even a 60-40 division between Jews and Arabs or a 65-35 division gives you a binational state in which you cannot continue to control all the instruments of power," DellaPergola says. Turns out the new math is a lot like the old math.