Home inFocus Celebrating Israel at 60 (Spring 2008) Defusing the Demographic Time Bomb

Defusing the Demographic Time Bomb

Bennett Zimmerman and Michael Wise Spring 2008

In an historic and pivotal speech before the Knesset in May 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shocked his nation by announcing that Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and large parts of the West Bank to demographically defendable lines in light of forecasts that Israeli Jews would soon lose their majority west of the Jordan River.

This was a striking turnabout for Sharon, who had established his reputation as a security hawk, and was widely considered to be the father of Israel’s settlement movement. After decades of backing the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the former general was convinced that Israeli control in the disputed territories would soon force Israel to choose between its Jewish character and its vibrant democracy.

Subsequent Israeli policy has been built upon the same premise. Israel’s current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, continues to believe that Jews will soon be outnumbered in their own land. This has been an important rationale for the renewed land-for-peace negotiations with the Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority in which Israel is considering painful concessions that may impact its long-term security. However, the forecasts, based largely upon numbers provided by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), are wrong.

The New Palestinian Census of 2007

The newest Palestinian census, released in February 2008, reported that there are now 3.71 million persons living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, this figure includes persons living overseas, persons twice counted, and projections that have spooked successive Israeli governments in recent years.

According to corroborative reports gathered from the PCBS, other Palestinian Agencies, Israeli authorities, and third parties, the recent Palestinian census numbers themselves are still inflated by as many as 1 million persons. After removing twice-counted persons and individuals not currently living in the territories, the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip totals no more than 2.7 million people.

Original Sin: The Palestinian Census of 1997

The current PCBS data is wrong because it does it not reflect corrections the PCBS itself noted in its original census of 1997. That census included Palestinians who had left over the years, but who were issued identification cards during Israel’s Civil Administration. According to the Oslo Accords, these persons had preferential rights to return to the territories. However, the PCBS included these individuals in their figures even if they were absent for decades. Using this data, the PCBS arrived at a faulty estimate for the West Bank and Gaza population totaling 2.8 million persons.

International supervision, however, required the PCBS to define the methodology that helped it arrive at its final numbers. Once it was understood that the PCBS augmented its numbers by including 325,258 residents living abroad, and 210,000 Jerusalem Arabs already counted by Israel, it was clear that the PCBS 1997 Census should have totaled 2.2 million persons. This number essentially confirmed Israel’s estimated figure of 2.1 million persons living in the territories, based upon school records, the re-issuance of identification cards, and Israel Border Police records.

Curiously, the Israeli government did not adopt the adjusted figures. Rather, successive Israeli governments worked with the faulty data first provided by the PCBS.

Projecting an Expanded Population

Successive Israeli governments also accepted at face value other faulty data produced by the PCBS, including projections for a rapidly-expanding population base. Not only were the projections based upon the incorrect numbers furnished in the 1997 PCBS census, but they were also based upon inacurate projections of growth for non-residents, as well.

For one, the PCBS harbored incorrect assumptions about population projection. The overall growth projections became so great that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were commonly described as experiencing “the highest birth rates in the world.” However, a recent World Bank report noted declining student enrollment, as did annual reports of the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education. These, in turn, confirmed lower birth levels as recorded by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health.

Over an 11-year period, however, the Palestinian Census Bureau estimated 560,000 more births than recorded by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health. Furthermore, a simple fact check at the United Nations website revealed that fertility rates ranked 20th for the Gaza Strip and 50th for the West Bank. An American University of Beirut study also corroborates a significant decline in Palestinian fertility levels, especially in the West Bank, based on extensive and large-scale household interviews and registration records of births (including overseas residents).

There were also wrong projections for immigration. While Israeli border records indicated that the territories were experiencing net emigration between 10,000 and 20,000 persons each year, the PCBS figures included a 1.5 percent growth rate each year for non-existent immigration. In fact, over an 11-year period, the PCBS included in their projections 458,000 immigrants who did not arrive, and failed to remove from the PCBS projection 170,000 emigrants. Nor did the PCBS remove the 105,000 Palestinians who officially moved to Israel.

The PCBS defended these faulty numbers with arguments about the “right of return” for those who had been abroad for years. This only underscored the lack of professional standards employed. Israel, for example, regularly subtracts residents who leave the country for a period of one year from its population count. It only adds them again when they reestablish residency.

The most recent Palestinian census also raised a red flag when it counted 208,000 Arabs living in Jerusalem. Israel currently reports that 254,000 Arabs live in Jerusalem. The discrepancy suggests that the PCBS calculated 46,000 Jerusalem Arabs living in adjacent West Bank suburbs. If so, those residents may have been counted twice; once by the PCBS census excluding Jerusalem and once by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS).

Shifting Demographic Momentum

Today, in Israel, there are 5.7 million Jews and 1.45 million Arabs, with another 1.5 million Arabs living in the West Bank. With the Gaza Strip fenced off and separated from Israel, Jews now enjoy a 2 to 1 majority in Israel and the West Bank.

The demographic momentum has also recently shifted. Since 2000, Jewish fertility and immigration have been above, and Israel Arab fertility has plummeted below, all scenarios considered by Israel’s demographers and the ICBS. Specifically, Jewish births have grown by 40 percent since 1995, while total Arab births have fallen back to decade-ago levels throughout Israel and the West Bank.

Large segments of the Orthodox Jewish population display the highest fertility rate at 4.8 births per woman, followed by Arab groups at 3.5 births per woman, while the large secular and traditional Jewish majority displays rising fertility rates of 2.2 births per woman. The latter group has become the determinant factor propelling Jews beyond the modest expectations set by Israeli demographers.

Moderate but persistent net aliyah (new Jewish immigration minus emigration plus returning Israelis) at current levels of 20,000 per year are sufficient to keep Israel’s Jewish majority steady until 2025, when the current Jewish baby boomers begin to have children. The bottom-line shows Jews holding a strong demographic advantage today in Israel and the West Bank, exclusive of the Gaza Strip.

Establishing Defendable Political Borders

Israel’s strong Jewish majority should be considered an historic 120-year achievement of modern Zionism, and not an advantage to be traded away.

Only one scenario exists by which Jews can lose their strong position: open Arab migration into the West Bank. Israel must not allow a situation whereby West Bank Arabs link up politically with Arab populations beyond the Jordan River. In this scenario, Israel could face a renewed demographic challenge.

West Bank Arabs currently encompass only 16 percent of the total population in Israel and the West Bank. The Jewish state can thus weigh its options on how to deal with this territory. It need not tolerate strategic Arab threats against her democracy based on false projections.

Armed with false figures, Israel’s political leaders could make needless concessions while negotiating Israel’s final borders. Armed with correct ones, Israel has an opportunity to confirm and protect the strategic demographic advantage it enjoys today in Israel and the West Bank.

The correct numbers, and not dramatic claims of a “demographic time bomb” that have so thoroughly terrified Israeli leaders for more than a decade, should provide a firm foundation for Israel to create solutions for peace and security from a position of strength.

Bennett Zimmerman and Michael Wise are with the American-Israel Demographic Research Group (AIDRG).