Jewish Baby Boom Alters Israeli-Palestinian Dynamic
JERUSALEM—Israel’s peace camp and its international backers have long used one crude but powerful argument: Arabs make more babies than Jews and unless a separate Palestinian state is created, a demographic time bomb will turn Jews into a dwindling minority akin to white South Africans.
That prospect certainly seemed real when the Oslo peace process began in the 1990s. Fertility among Israeli Jews stood at an average of 2.6 children per woman, compared with 4.7 among Muslims in Israel and East Jerusalem and 6.0 among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Yasser Arafat at the time famously declared that the womb of the Palestinian woman was his people’s most potent weapon.
Yet over the past decade, a demographic revolution with long-lasting political consequences has occurred. Jewish birthrates in Israel have spiked while Arab birthrates in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the Middle East have declined. This unlikely baby boom has made many Israeli Jews a lot less afraid of being outnumbered—one of the underappreciated reasons why the country’s voters have consistently rewarded politicians opposed to Palestinian statehood and to relinquishing land.
“When you are motivated by fear, you seek to preserve demography by giving away geography,” explained Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli ambassador and right-wing activist who has been active in publicizing the impact of Israel’s rising birthrate. “But if you examine Israel’s demographics realistically, there is no need to think in such terms.”
The Jewish fertility rate in Israel was 3.11 per woman in 2014, the last full year for which data is available, while among the Arab citizens of Israel and East Jerusalem residents it was only a notch higher at 3.17, according to Israel’s statistics bureau. Palestinian fertility rates have fallen to 3.7 in the West Bank from 5.6 in 1997, and to 4.5 from 6.9 children in the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian statistics bureau.
“There will be no demographic time bomb,” Israel’s defense minister and right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview before his recent appointment. “Birthrates in the Arab and Jewish sectors will continue converging, while we also hope that a considerable part of Jews from Western Europe, and also from North America, will come here.” Jewish immigration last year, from countries such as France and Ukraine, was at the highest level since 2003.
Basing political decisions on
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