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Paul Goodman: Will Israel stay Zionist?

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By Paul Goodman

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To Israel and Palestine...

I hope the Palestinian developer we met near Ramallah was a Muslim, because this would add an extra dimension to the story I'm about to tell.  He is helping to construct a city - the first purpose-built one in part of what I hope will become the state of Palestine - called Rawabi.  His Israeli suppliers must sometimes transport their goods to the fledgling city by lorry. A small road through which these big vehicles travel borders a vineyard owned by a local priest who the developer must thus - in his own word - "schmooze".  I am taken by the idea of a Muslim developer with Jewish business partners charming a Christian priest in Yiddish.

This tale of civic ambition eased by ethnic co-operation is a by-product of my first visit to Israel and Palestine, courtesy of BICOM.  Rawabi is situated where the respective crossroads from Nablus to Ramallah and from Tel Aviv to Amman meet. The country throws up political, economic and cultural highways and byways, and there are many to take.  Some are internal: the social protests that saw 300,000 people take to the streets last summer, the dotty destructiveness of its electoral system (pure proportional representation plus no parliamentary constituencies), the jaw-dropping success of its high-tech industries.  And some are external: the possibility of Syria's collapse spilling into Israel, the new Salafist terror presence in the Sinai - a danger to Egypt and Israel alike - and, above all, the probability of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities that could ignite a regional conflict and destabilise the world's economy.

...And agreement by many people on one point: that neither side has a partner with which to negotiate.

But I will carry on as I began and stick with an issue that is at once internal and external: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Though polls show a majority on both sides for two-state solution, the situation is surpassingly bleak.  The Israelis paint a picture of encirclement: Hamas-authorised rockets, the new menace from the Salafists in Sinai, peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan perhaps uprooted by the Arab Spring, and war with Iran triggering a blizzard of Hezbollah missiles, bringing the country under attack from Gaza and Lebanon simultaneously.  In their turn, the Palestinians paint a mural of imprisonment - of Israeli occupation and blockade, complete with the exploitative control of land, water, airspace, electricity, business and jobs - all exercised in order to ease the ever-continuing construction of settlements.  The only view which unites both is that neither has a partner with which to negotiate. 

Stalemate, apparently - until one turns to demographic trends.  These are legendarily slippery, but though the details are obscure the trend is clear.  According to Bernard Wasserstein, the Jewish population of Israel is some 5.2 million: if the number of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (Arab Israelis, if you prefer), about 1.3 million, is added to the number of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, one reaches a total of 4.7 million.  Sergio DellaPergola, a leading Israeli demographer, claims that they may fall below the 50% mark in this entire area by 2020. No wonder Yasser Arafat claimed that Israel faces "a demographic bomb".  In one sense, these developments are trivial: after all, there is no reason why blame - wherever one believes it to lie - should shift when one group rather than another reaches the 50%-plus-one mark.

Israeli Arab and ultra-orthodox birthrates: why Zionism could eventually become a minority view within Israel itself

But in another sense, they are vital: the claim that Israel is no longer both Jewish and a democracy will somehow acquire traction when the number of Jews in both Israel and the West-Bank-plus-Gaza dips below that halfway mark.  Don't take my word for it: a prominent left-of-centre Israeli journalist told us that at such a point the claim that the state is an apartheid one would acquire a legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens.  Her claim would be ferociously disputed, but it is much on the minds of Israelis from both right and left.  The right tends to argue that as long as Israel is seeking a settlement the demographics aren't a problem: the suggestion is that it can hold down the West Bank and Gaza militarily and indefinitely.  The left leans towards the opposite view, arguing that such a posture is wrong in principle, politically unsustainable and impossible to effect - at least, not without a third and uncontrollable intifada.

One proposed solution is a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank to follow the one that has already taken place from Gaza - in order to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of the country.  Were Israel to retire behind its borders, how would the Palestinians respond?  Would the rocket attacks rise rather than fall in tempo, as some attempt "to erase Israel from the pages of time" (to adapt a phrase from elsewhere)?  I suspect so, but can't know.  However, I do know that the story grows even more baleful for Zionism when the demographic trends within Israel itself are considered. Although the rate of Arab population growth in Israel is falling, it is still rising overall, and that of the ultra-orthodox is growing even faster. In primary schools, the number of Arab Israeli children plus that of those of ultra-orthodox Jews may already have reached over half the total [also see graph above]. 

A peaceful condomium or bloody partition?

Why lump together those two starkly different groups?  Very simply, because both are ambivalent, at the very least, to Zionism.  It goes almost without saying that the Palestinian citizens of Israel are hostile to it (though polls find their attitude to Israeli life and institutions is more nuanced).  But it is less well known than it should be that the ultra-orthodox are in general neutral about Zionism.  To them, that belief isn't necessarily wrapped up with what it means to be Jewish: its essence isn't building a state but observing the Torah - and the latter, for most of the ultra-orthodox, doesn't require the former.  This helps to explain one of the most vituperative battles among Israeli Jews themselves - the struggle over the refusal of most of the ultra-orthodox to undertake military national service.  Some secular and other religious Jews see the ultra-orthodox as parasites, hiding behind their books as they sponge off the taxpayer.

It may be that the ultra-orthodox eventually embrace Zionism - we heard claims that there is a trend in that direction - or that their birthrate dips, and that the Israeli Arab birthrate falls as living standards rise, or that an outbreak of anti-semitism worldwide brings its Jewish masses to Israel's shores, in the first big wave since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  But the likelihood is that, in the long run, Israel will change further, as it has changed many times before.  It is hard to see how a state with a non-Zionist majority can remain a Jewish state, in the sense that the term is usually used.  Talking of byways and highways, could the future meet a fork in the road - with one way leading to a peaceful ondominium of Jordan and Palestine plus an Israel with a Jewish but non-Zionist flavour, and another to the ghastly alternative of ethnic cleaning and partition?

Again, I can't know.  But I do know that Israel may close a big road into Rawabi.  The Palestinians there see the possibility as a manipulative threat.  The Israelis told us that it is a security necessity.


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