Brinkley on the “numbers game”

Posted: September 7, 2010 by Rex Brynen in new items and opinion pieces

On Sunday the San Francisco Chronicle published an interesting piece by former NYT reporter (and current professor of journalism at Stanford) Joel Brinkley, entitled “A Numbers Game in the Middle East.” In it, he noted the Israel’s demographic concerns about maintaining the Jewish character of the state:

As American and Middle East leaders begin peace talks in Washington, public discussion in the weeks ahead is likely to center on borders, security, settlements and the fate of Jerusalem. But behind all of this, in the negotiators’ minds, a threat hangs like the sword of Damocles: Isn’t the Palestinian population growing so fast that, soon enough, it will outnumber Jews in the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea?

American presidents and Israeli prime ministers have issued dire warnings about this for years. Late last year, former President Bill Clinton, speaking in Jerusalem, chastised Israelis, saying: “Two things remain unchanged” since he was president: “geography and demographics. Palestinians have more children than Israelis have or can import.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to Israel’s parliament in 2007, predicted “a demographic battle, drowned in blood and tears,” if Israel did not settle with the Palestinians.

These stark warnings generally come from the Israeli left, which favors trading land for peace. Give the Palestinians their own state on the West Bank, they say, and the demographic nightmare will disappear. The Palestinians can have all the babies they want, and they will be residents of Palestine, not Israeli-occupied territory.

He goes on to cite demographic studies, generally promoted by Israeli right-wingers, that argue that Palestinian population growth is less than generally reported:

But they might all be wrong. A team of demographers headed by Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli diplomat, conducted a detailed study and found, to most everyone’s surprise, that Israeli Jews far outnumber Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. What’s more, Jewish birth rates are higher now, too. The demographic threat, these demographers say, simply doesn’t exist.

The Israeli right has sometimes used these arguments in an effort to show there are no demographic pressures for Israel to surrender control of “Judea and Samaria.” (Other demographers, it should be said, contest their findings.)

Brinkley, however, draws a very different conclusion:

But if the new data does win broad acceptance, it could serve one purpose at the peace talks that the researchers never intended. The Palestinian platform for a political settlement calls for the right of return for Palestinians who lost their homes in Israel when the state was founded in 1948. (Actually, now it would be their grandchildren.)

Israel has always insisted it would never accept that; admitting thousands of new Arab residents would irrevocably alter Israel’s demographics and leave Jews without a majority. But if Ettinger’s data is correct, that’s all wrong. Israel could let those Palestinian families back in, and the Jews would face no demographic threat, which just goes to show: In the Middle East, be careful what you wish for.

I don’t think the argument would gain any traction in Israel, but it is a rather ironic turn-around nonetheless.

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