Israeli-Arab demographic balance takes center stage as Kerry pushes partition deal

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013 file photo, Palestinian families enjoy the beach of the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City. Palestinians continue to have a higher rate of natural growth than Jews, and leading Israeli demographers have said the current slight Jewish majority in the Holy Land will disappear in a few years. Israelis in favor of a peace deal that cedes most of the war-won land to a Palestinian state usually point to the ``demographic time bomb'' as a prime motivator. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

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By KARIN LAUB and DAN PERRY, Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian construction worker Nael Yassin and his wife, Wafa, are the proud parents of a new baby girl — the fifth child for the couple in their early 30s.

Such fecundity is usually a private affair, but in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a broader issue is in play. A race for "demographic" prominence — and the fact that Israel may be losing it — has become critical to the current peace effort led by John Kerry.

The U.S. secretary of state himself has started warning Israel that it stands to become a binational state unless it ends the occupation of the lands it captured in the 1967 war. Kerry, who is expected to present a framework for a deal soon, said last month that failure "will make it impossible to preserve (Israel's) future as a democratic Jewish state."

The idea — emphasized as never before — is being listened to in Israel.

In a speech Monday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid presented the issue as the main reason Kerry must succeed: "Every moment we don't separate from the Palestinians is a clear threat to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state."

The "demographic issue" is focusing Israeli minds in a way that moral arguments against occupation have not, particularly when they are weighed against forgoing the West Bank's strategic hinterland and Jerusalem with its unrivaled religious and historic sites.

Some experts are predicting Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel plus the areas it captured in 1967 — the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Continued occupation, they say, would force Israel into a hard choice: Formalize Jewish minority rule over disenfranchised Palestinians — or give them the right to vote and end the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine.

In this context, those arguing for a pullout on these terms are essentially trying to save Israel as a "Jewish state" — where the degree of Jewishness is a function of the size of the majority.

In a century of Arab-Jewish conflict, the population balance shifted because of Jewish immigration and war-driven displacement of Arabs.

About 750,000 people lived in historic Palestine at the beginning of British rule after World War I, including 78 percent Muslims, 11 percent Jews and 10 percent Christians, said Joseph Chamie, former head of the U.N. Population Division. The Christians and Muslims were generally both Arabs.

In 1947, the United Nations voted to end British rule and partition Palestine into "independent Arab and Jewish states." At that time the population of 1.8 million was 60 percent Muslims, 31 percent Jews and 8 percent Christians.

In the war that followed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from what became Israel, and many Jews then immigrated to the new country. Jews made up 87 percent of Israel's population in 1950, Chamie said.

The West Bank and the Gaza Strip were seized by Jordan and Egypt, respectively — but when Israel captured those areas in 1967, the demographic equation changed again.

Currently, just over 12 million people live in the combined territory, according to figures from the Israeli and Palestinian statistics bureaus.

Israel's population stood at some 8.1 million in 2013, said Pnina Zadka of Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics. That includes West Bank settlers, Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, captured in 1967 from Syria. The figure breaks down to 6.1 million Jews, or roughly 75 percent, and 1.68 million Arabs, or 21 percent, she said.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics put the number of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem last year at just over 4.4 million.

Subtracting some 300,000 Palestinians in east Jerusalem from the Palestinian bureau's total because Israel already counted them, the result would still indicate near-parity in the Holy Land — 6.1 million Jews and close to 5.8 million Arabs, including those with Israeli citizenship.