How many Jews live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean? How many Palestinians live in that same small strip of land?
The question erupts irregularly, repeatedly, and inevitably in Israeli politics, like symptoms of a serious, misdiagnosed disease.
The latest outbreak came when a meeting of a Knesset committee veered off-topic. The session was devoted to a labor dispute in Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, which is responsible for all sorts of government services, both to Palestinians living under occupation and to Israeli settlers. The small size of the overworked, underpaid Civil Administration staff led a committee member to ask how many Palestinians live in the West Bank.
“We estimate 2.5 to 2.7 million,” responded Colonel Uri Mendes, No. 2 in the military office, known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, responsible for civilian aspects of occupation. The Palestinian Authority, Mendes said, has three million people listed in its population registry, but that includes people who are living abroad, or who have died abroad, but are still on the books.
The committee chair, Avi Dichter of the ruling Likud Party, wasn’t happy. “This is a totally new figure, which is very significant and surprising,” he said, especially since there were another two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In the meeting, and in news reports after, people added up numbers. Take Mendes’s higher estimate for the West Bank, add Dichter’s number for Gaza, then throw in official Israeli statistics for the number of Arabs living in Israel and the total comes out to 6.5 million—about the same number as the Jewish population between the river and the sea. And the source was not some Cassandra from the opposition benches, but a top military expert.
Ergo, the long-feared (or long-awaited) moment of parity had arrived: The Palestinian population in the areas directly or indirectly under Israeli control is equal to the Jewish population. Given growth trends, The Palestinian population will presumably soon be larger. A Jewish minority will be ruling an Arab majority.
On cue, Yossi Beilin, a key figure in the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestinians, wrote that “Israel is far from being an apartheid state currently, but if it opts for minority rule of an Arab majority, it will have no choice but to adopt apartheid methods.” The alternative, as other voices on the center left implied, was formally annexing the occupied territories, granting citizenship to the Palestinian residents—and having a single state with a Palestinian majority.
Or to reframe this: having a Palestinian state, with a Jewish minority.
Also on cue, rightists engaged in demography denial. Dichter himself challenged the military’s numbers. Another right-wing member of the parliamentary committee, Motti Yogev of the Jewish Home party, insisted that the autonomous Palestinian Authority had inflated its figures, and charged the military with dereliction of duty for relying on the Palestinian numbers.
All this followed the script of discussing what’s called the “demographic problem” in Israel, a debate that in its current form began with Israel’s conquests in June 1967. Ever since, the standard argument from critics of holding the occupied territories in perpetuity has been that the Palestinian birth rate was higher than the Jewish rate; eventually Arabs would outnumber Jews.
Supporters of permanent rule have denied the demographic logic. In the early years, the standard line was that the Jews of the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States would immigrate—as Defense Minister Shimon Peres, then an opponent of ceding land, argued in 1972. The Jews of the Soviet Union did eventually come in large numbers, but this only slowed the shift toward parity. As for the Jews of America, Peres wasn’t the only Israeli leader who didn’t get them.
These days, the demography deniers have stopped talking about mass immigration. Instead they find ways to “prove” that there are fewer Palestinians.
All this reflects pain brought on by the malady of endless occupation. But the focus on parity is mistaken. The problem isn't demography: It’s democracy, in more ways than one.
To start with, ruling over people who are denied basic rights, including and especially the right to vote, is undemocratic—regardless of whether they are a minority or a majority. Jim Crow was an affront to democracy; it didn’t matter that African Americans were a minority. Apartheid in South Africa would have been anti-democratic even if the white population had been 53 percent and not 13 percent.
Let’s say the demography-deniers of the Israeli right actually have the correct numbers and there are fewer Palestinians in the West Bank. Those Palestinians are living in land under Israeli rule, where Israeli settlers have rights and they do not. Smaller numbers doesn’t make that kosher.
When the discussion turns to annexation, or under another name, to a “one-state solution,” the numbers are significant, but not quite as much as the people obsessed with parity believe. Making the occupied territories officially part of Israel and making the Palestinians into citizens would create a more democratic state. But it would be a binational and dysfunctional state whether Jews are 60 percent of the population, 51 percent, or 49 percent.
The great majority of Israeli Jews want self-determination as a national group—that is, to live in a Jewish state. The great majority of Palestinians want self-determination, that is, a Palestinian state.
Let’s say it’s the day after creation of a single democratic state. New elections are held; Jews win 65 out of 120 seats in parliament. They can form a government that will maintain a state where Hebrew is the dominant language and Jews still have the right to immigrate—as long as 61 out of those 65 Jewish members of parliament can put together a stable ruling coalition. It would include the right and left, the secular and the ultra-Orthodox. If you’d like to bet on such a government lasting, I’d be glad to take your bet.
Reverse the numbers: Assume there’s a narrow majority of Palestinians between the river and the sea. The Palestinian parliamentary majority could remake the country—if virtually all the Palestinian representatives could agree on how to do that. If you think this likely, you haven’t been watching Palestinian politics.
Ideally, yes, some new political alignment could come together across national lines, united by civil issues—economics, education, exports, etc. It could create a stable government—if it could reach agreement on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, on control of holy places, on what history to teach, on which alphabet would appear on top in official documents, on all the things shaped by national identity in two deeply nationalist communities. Ideally, this could work.
With real Jews and Palestinians, not so much.
In other words, as long as neither side has an overwhelming majority, the exact ratio doesn’t matter so much. Parity is a distraction. The precision of the Palestinian population registry is irrelevant.
For Palestinians and Jews to have democracy and to fulfill their national aspirations, each group needs a state. That adds up to two states. The number that matters is really easy: Two.