With Talks Stalemated, Demographics Define Israeli-Palestinian Future

The basic components for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are clear. Factions blocking the terms assume that, by holding out, the other side will give up and go away. They stubbornly overlook how ongoing demographic trends could create a new political reality. “Differential rates of population growth already redefine the relative demographic standing of Arab-Israelis, Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians,” explains demographer Joseph Chamie. Birth rates among Palestinians are higher than those among Israelis; over the past 60 years, the proportion of Jewish citizens has slowly declined. Jewish-Israelis now represent 75 percent of the population, with long-range projections showing equivalence. Higher rates of Jewish immigration are unlikely; ongoing conflict could even induce emigration. Constant delays in a peace settlement add new complications, threatening democracy for Israel and destroying the possibility of a separate Palestinian state. Delays in securing a just peace settlement might let demography define their destiny. – YaleGlobal

With Talks Stalemated, Demographics Define Israeli-Palestinian Future

Contrasting birth rates between Israelis and Palestinians will influence Middle East politics
Joseph Chamie
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Demographic decision: Israel's democracy will have to contend with non-Israeli population growth

NEW YORK: Countless words have been spoken and written, several wars and numerous armed clashes have taken place. Thousands have died, with even more injured and suffering. Yet, after more than 60 years of struggle, numerous diplomatic initiatives, agreements and peace offers, intergovernmental conferences and behind-the-scenes negotiations, comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains disappointingly elusive.

Nevertheless, the Israelis and Palestinians are meeting again in an attempt to negotiate a settlement. This latest peace fest – the first in 20 months – is the ninth attempt at peace since 1979, when negotiators identified the final status issues.

Although this round of negotiations was launched with considerable fanfare and political spin, the talks are teetering on the verge of collapse following Israel’s decision not to extend the moratorium on settlement construction. Whatever the outcome of these current negotiations, significant demographic changes now underway create political realities that will likely overtake any proposed peace plan if it is long in coming.

To be sure, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves overcoming obdurate obstacles and successfully aligning many interlocking and intricate pieces. However, the fundamental ingredients for a peace deal are relatively straightforward.

Interactive Map: Mouse Over Gaza Strip & Israel to see 2 populations over key points in time, plus click here to see the future.

First is the important matter of borders for the two states. Not surprisingly, each side has its respective positions – varying from extreme rejectionism to equitable accommodation – on how best to slice up historic British Palestine. Perhaps the most promising outcome is that Israel returns to its June 1967 borders – give or take a few negotiated settlements in the West Bank and some compensatory territorial swaps. Also, in order to unite the two components of a Palestinian state, a land corridor connecting the West Bank and the Gaza Strip must be worked out. 

The second issue concerns the right of return for the Palestinians refugees of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state and their millions of descendants. Given the current circumstances, the most promising compromise is for the Palestinians to (a) concede that there would be no right of return except for a small proportion of refugees for humanitarian purposes, such as family reunification, and (b) accept compensation for their displacement and losses.

Among the most sensitive issues to negotiate concerns the status of Jerusalem. Here again the staked out positions of each side differ greatly. The Palestinians insist on making East Jerusalem the capital of their new country; the Israelis are adamant on a unified Jerusalem under their control. Perhaps the most promising solution in general terms is for the two parties to share Jerusalem – Palestinians locating their capital in the East and Israelis in the West. In addition, both parties would sign on to an international agreement establishing mechanisms to share the Old City’s holy sites.

The fourth major ingredient for achieving a peace accord relates to the vital matter of security. The United States or NATO would have to give both Israelis and Palestinians security guarantees. In addition to monitoring implementation of the peace agreement, this would likely include stationing troops along the common borders. To stop potential arms traffic into a future Palestinian state, troops would be required to monitor borders with Egypt and Jordan. 

The fifth key issue is the recognition of Israel, the end of all hostilities and full normalization of relations with all Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Libya. This would involve an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement that includes Israeli withdrawal and the return of the occupied Golan Heights to Syria. And of course, other normal inter-state matters must be suitably resolved among the parties, including water, trade, transportation, travel, communication.

Despite the resumption of peace talks, the clarity of the major issues to be addressed and the professed good intentions of the negotiators and their supporters to achieve a just and permanent settlement, the outcome of the restarted peace talks remains uncertain.

Each side has powerful factions resisting a peace accord in part because they are convinced that the passage of time is on their side. Some Israelis and their supporters envision the expansion of Jewish Israel over all of biblical Israel and the transfer or removal – both voluntarily and involuntarily – of the Palestinians into nearby countries. In contrast, some Palestinians and their supporters foresee protracted conflict leading to the voluntary departure of most Jewish-Israelis to the United States and Western European nations and the subsequent establishment of a Palestinian state in the former British Palestine.

However, time may not be on either side. Differential rates of population growth already redefine the relative demographic standing of Arab-Israelis, Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian population is expected to grow more rapidly than the Israeli population due primarily to higher birth rates. Consequently, over the coming decades the difference in the numbers of Israelis and Palestinians will shrink, with long-range projections pointing to convergence toward numeric equivalence, a critical demographic inflection point.

Also, while demographic projections indicate that the Jewish-Israelis will continue to be the large majority in Israel for the foreseeable future, it will be increasingly challenging for them to increase or maintain their current dominant majority of approximately 75 percent. The primary underlying reason is the fact that the fertility rates of Arab-Israelis are about one child higher than those of Jewish-Israelis.

With regard to immigration, past flows of Jewish immigration to Israel were substantial, contributing significantly to the growth of the Jewish-Israeli population. However, despite high levels of immigration in the past, in particular from the republics of the former Soviet Union, the proportion Jewish among the Israeli population has declined from a high of 89 percent in 1958 to 75 percent today, primarily the result of higher rates of growth among non-Jewish Israelis. 

Moreover, it is important to note that after Israel, which accounts for approximately 42 percent of world’s Jews, the largest numbers of Jews reside in the United States – nearly 40 percent – followed by France, Canada and the United Kingdom, all less than 4 percent. Relatively few from the Jewish populations in these developed countries are likely to exchange comfortable lifestyles and economic opportunities for a more precarious residence in this troubled and unstable region.

Also, Israel is not immune to emigration of its own Jewish citizens. With attractive educational, employment and other opportunities abroad and difficulties at home, increasing numbers of Israelis have chosen to travel and live in other countries. Estimates of the number of Israelis residing abroad range from about 800,000 to 1 million – 11 to 14 percent – with about 60 percent settled in the United States and a quarter in Europe.

Given the tragic past, the knotty state of current affairs and many formidable obstacles to overcome, it’s undeniably difficult to envision an outcome to the current peace talks other than the status quo. However, continuation of the status quo undermines the credibility and diminishes chances for achieving a lasting and just peace agreement. 

Indeed, the persistence of the status quo may soon give the Palestinians no choice but to forgo a state of their own and push for the right to be Israeli citizens with equal rights, including voting. For Israel, continuation of the status quo seriously challenges its democracy and predominately Jewish character. In short, Israelis and Palestinians need to make some difficult choices. And if they don’t do so soon, the future will be made for them and it’s unlikely to be peace.

Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, is research director at the Center for Migration Studies.
Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization