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Conventional wisdom says Israel must reach a peace deal quickly, before population trends and diplomatic isolation overtake the Jewish state. Demographics and geopolitics tell a different story.

David P. Goldman
July 20, 2011
The press center at Middle East peace talks, January 2000.(SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
The press center at Middle East peace talks, January 2000.(SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

“Time isn’t on Israel’s side” must be the most-repeated phrase in Israeli politics, in the Jewish state as well as in the Diaspora. It’s Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni’s refrain, as Simon Schama put it recently in the Financial Times. Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, said so in a Jerusalem speech to Jewish legislators from various parliamentary democracies June 29. We’ve heard the same shibboleth this year from Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, Turkish commentator Ömer Taşpinar, Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartmann Institute, Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt, and many others.

The claim that Israel is fighting the clock has two components: diplomacy and demographics. Israel’s diplomatic isolation will corner the Jewish state while fast-breeding Arabs will overwhelm the population balance between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, goes the argument. On both counts, though, the facts speak against the notion that time is running out for Israel. Time, on the contrary, seems to be on Israel’s side.

The Palestinian Authority’s much-feared march toward a United Nations vote for statehood has become something of an embarrassment. A vote for statehood in the General Assembly has no legal implications, and the United States will always veto the measure in the Security Council. Some Palestinian leaders think that token support in the General Assembly will do more harm than good; Palestine Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki last week offered to withdraw the U.N. vote if negotiations with Israel restarted before September. And even the Kingdom of Jordan might vote against Palestinian statehood, according to the Middle East Research Center’s Alexander Bligh.

Arab rhetoric in support of Palestinian statehood, moreover, isn’t matched by real support. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, complained last week that Arab donors have paid out only a third of their pledges to his government, leaving the Palestinian Authority without enough cash to pay public employees’ salaries. “The Palestinians cannot count on the friends cheering them on rhetorically to step up financially if the going gets rough post-September,” warned Michael Singh, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a blog post on Foreign Policy’s website.

Israel hardly seems as isolated as it did before Greece blocked another Gaza flotilla earlier this month, and the IHH—the Hamas-linked Turkish “charity” that sponsored the Mavi Marmara flotilla last year—dropped out of the exercise. Israeli diplomacy seemed quite effective. “The decision [for IHH to drop out] was taken for no other reason than that the Turkish government has made restoring its previously excellent relationship with Israel a priority,” reported Stephen Pollard in the Guardian. “The very last thing the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants is another pointless conflict. Having been re-elected for a third term he no longer needs to play to the gallery and paint Israel as a pantomime villain—his stock message since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009. With Syrian troops on his southern border, Erdogan has been keen to move on from the Mavi Marmara incident and return to good relations and military co-operation with Israel.”

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries—including Turkey—have shifted their rhetoric away from Israel and toward the risk of rising Iranian influence. Only a few months ago, conventional wisdom stated that the United States needed a Middle East peace deal to steer the Arab Spring in a pro-American direction. But as it turned out, the Arab Spring had little to do with the Palestine issue, and as the political chaos in the Arab world became less tractable, Israel’s position improved.

Israel is less isolated because Syria is isolated—except for Iran’s continued sponsorship—and because civil wars in Yemen and Libya and renewed political unrest in Egypt have validated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim before the U.S. Congress in May that “Israel is the one anchor of stability” in “an unstable Middle East.” Until the Syrian government provoked attacks on the American and French embassies in Damascus, the U.S. administration and other Western governments made it clear that they preferred to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power there, based on the commonplace notion that no comprehensive peace agreement is possible without Syria and no partial agreement is likely, given the dependence of Hezbollah and Hamas on his regime. It is hard to pressure Israel to negotiate a peace deal when a pivotal player is absent, and the recent meeting of the Middle East Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) in Washington ended without a public statement.

Even if the Arab revolt and its consequences have eased Israel’s diplomatic isolation and undercut the pressure for a settlement with the Palestinians, that does not serve Israel’s interests, according to President Barack Obama. “The number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories,” he told the America-Israel Political Action Committee in May.

Whether the proportion of Arabs in Judea and Samaria as well as in Israel itself is growing may be the most politicized demographic question in the world. Yet the Israeli Jewish fertility rate has risen to three children per female while the Arab fertility rate has fallen to the point where the two trend lines have converged and perhaps even crossed. A 2006 study by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies claims that the West Bank and Gaza population in 2004 was only 2.5 million, rather than the 3.8 million claimed by the Palestinian authorities. Presumably the numbers were inflated to increase foreign aid and exaggerate the importance of the Palestinian population.

Most of the phantom population, the report argues, comes from births that never occurred:

[The Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics] projected that the number of births in the Territories would total almost 908,000 for the seven-year period from 1997 to 2003. Yet, the actual number of births documented by the PA Ministry of Health for the same period was significantly lower at 699,000, or 238,000 fewer births than had been forecast by the PCBS. … The size of the discrepancy accelerated over time. Whereas the PCBS predicted there would be over 143,000 births in 2003, the PA Ministry of Health reported only 102,000 births, which pointed to a PCBS forecast 40% beyond actual results.

Palestinian fertility on the West Bank has already fallen to the Israeli fertility rate of three children per woman, if we believe the Palestine Ministry of Health numbers rather than the highly suspect Central Bureau of Statistics data. The Begin-Sadat estimates were disputed by other Israeli demographers, notably Sergio DellaPergola of the Jewish People Policy Institute. Yet the idea that economic and cultural modernization leads to falling birthrates is a commonplace among demographers who study the developing world. In 1963, Israeli Arab women had eight or nine children; today they have three, about the same as Israeli Jews. Education explains most of the fertility decline among Arabs, and it is likely that Arab fertility behind the Green Line as well as in Judea and Samaria will continue to fall.

More recent data also show that the Israeli Jewish birth rate has risen faster than predicted. Jewish births rose from 96,000 in the year 2000 to 125,000 in 2010, while Arab births fell slightly over the same period—from about 40,781 to 40,750, according to a new study by Yaakov Faitelson at the Institute for Zionist Strategies. The proportion of Jewish pupils in Israel’s elementary schools is increasing, Faitelson reports:

The percentage of students in the Arab educational system out of all Israel’s total first grade student body will decrease from 29.1% in 2007 to only 24.3% in 2016 and 22.5% in 2020. At the same time the percentage of students in the Jewish educational system out of the total first grade student body will reach 75.7% by 2016 and 77.5% by 2020.

While Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority contributes disproportionately to Jewish population growth, most of the increase in Jewish births comes from the secular and non-Orthodox religious categories, which average 2.6 children per woman. Faitelson notes that the ultra-Orthodox fertility rate fell over the past decade, while the fertility of the general Jewish population rose.

If present trends continue, the proportion of Jews in Israel and the West Bank will remain roughly constant; it may even rise. Muslim fertility is falling faster than anywhere in the world, with some Muslim countries—notably Iran, Turkey, Algeria, and Tunisia—reaching levels well below replacement. “In most of the Islamic world it’s amazing, the decline in fertility that has happened,’’ Hania Zlotnik, head of the United Nations’ population research branch, told a 2009 conference. Within every Muslim country and across the Muslim world, one variable explains most of the fertility air-pocket, namely education. Once Muslim women leave the cocoon of traditional society for secondary or university education, their fertility drops quickly to levels below replacement.

If Israel’s total fertility rate holds at three, its population will reach 24 million by the end of this century, the United Nations’ population model predicts. And if the low fertility rates prevailing elsewhere hold steady, Israel will have more people under the age of 25 than Turkey, Iran, or even Germany. It will be able to field the largest army in the Middle East. And it will have a thriving high-tech economy, enormous energy resources, and a reliable supply of desalinated water. Israel has a near-optimal mix of economics and demographics, while time is running out for Arab countries that have failed over and over again to rise to the demands of the modern world.

There is just one remaining argument that the clock is ticking against Israel, namely “linkage” between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s strategic threat to Israel. Gen. David Petraeus, the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency, made this assertion in congressional testimony in March 2010. “Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations,” Petraeus argued. “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.” I argued at the time that Petraeus was outrageously wrong and that Jewish conservatives were misguided to hail Petraeus as a hero.

Iran’s nuclear program and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas are significant threats to the Jewish state. Yet it is hard to find a policy analyst of any stripe today who will defend the idea that an Israeli-Palestine agreement, even if such a thing were possible in the present environment, might meaningfully reduce the Iranian threat. In the uncertain aftermath of Arab revolts, Petraeus’ “linkage” argument has quietly faded into the inoperative list of embarrassing past policy statements. The commonplace argument that time is not on Israel’s side looks like it will be next.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too).

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.