Sharon maintains control in face of demographic shift

 

WorldView: 'Gaza cannot be held on to for ever. Over one million Palestinians live there, and they double their numbers with every generation."

Ariel Sharon's words, spoken in a television address on Monday as the deadline for Israeli settlers to leave Gaza expired, reveal much about his motivations and the changing assumptions built into Israeli public policy. This was reinforced in a remark by deputy prime minister Shimon Peres on Newsnight last week: "We are disengaging from Gaza because of demography".

In Israel and Palestine demography has become a highly political affair because of the ethnic/racial/religious categories with which the subject is addressed. A remark by another former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, speaking when he was foreign minister in 1996, spelled out why: "Any type of full control by Israel over the whole area from the Mediterranean to the Jordan . . . means inevitably either a binational state, if it is democratic and so non-Jewish; or an apartheid state, which is non-democratic."

Barak was arguing against the "Greater Israel" policies espoused by Sharon in alliance with right-wing religious parties, which assumed that such an enlarged Israel would be sustainable.

The great conundrum now about Sharon is why he has made this U-turn on Gaza withdrawal. His political reputation was built on a combination of ruthless militarism and strong advocacy of Jewish settler colonialism in the territories occupied after 1967, which brought Israeli control to the Jordan river as well as Gaza.

He announced a goal of 100,000 settlers by 1983 when he was agriculture minister in the late 1970s precisely to make withdrawal impossible. The figure was achieved and is now some 230,000, concentrated in major blocs throughout the West Bank. In addition there are some 200,000 Israeli settlers in eastern Jerusalem, and the number is growing steadily.

There is much to be said for the explanation offered by Aluf Benn of Haaretz published in these pages on Wednesday - that unilateralism is at the heart of Sharon's political philosophy and that his unmatched political shrewdness is the perfect foil for it.

As he told that paper in 2001: "We must all know that we can never place our fate in the hands of anyone else". Fear of being corralled into an internationally imposed peace process after he took over as prime minister, alongside growing evidence of unrest within the Israeli armed forces about Gaza, convinced him to take the initiative.

At a stroke it gave him back control of the agenda, preventing or pre-empting external action and giving him time to ditch Likud hardliners and become the dominant partner in a new, grand coalition with the Israeli Labor Party.

The remark last year by his adviser, Dov Weisglass, that the policy is intended to suspend in formaldehyde the road-map policy towards peace rather than push it forward, along with the conviction that the main Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank will remain under Israeli control, are widely noted.

They mesh with the other major plank of Sharon's approach - his acceptance of the Israeli wall/fence through mainly Palestinian territory. It was initiated by the previous Labor government and leaves about 10 per cent of the West Bank's land on the Israeli side.

This would be bargained against concentrations of Israeli Palestinians and of Israeli access to settlement concentrations in any final agreement. Last year George Bush accepted it would be unrealistic to assume this could be based on the 1967 borders. As a result any future Palestinian state would be cantonised, fragmented and subject to Israeli control if Sharon's plan succeeds, just as a Gaza withdrawal does not relinquish Israeli control there.

Thus Sharon, too, has drawn the lessons from demographic projections about the respective size and fertility of the Palestinian and Israeli - or rather Jewish - populations over the next 15 years or so.

According to figures used by the geographer Arnon Soffer, the population of Israel, including all of Jerusalem, will rise from 7.1 million in 2002 to 9.7 million by 2020. The Jewish population will rise from 5.0 to 6.3 million.

These are based on optimistic assumptions about Jewish immigration, which are not borne out in current figures. Last year a mere 21,000 Jews arrived, a small total after the million or more who came from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. In fact most of the 13-14 million Jews in the world live abroad - more in the US than in Israel - and this is most unlikely to change.

The non-Jewish population will rise much more rapidly, from 2.1 to 3.4 million, mainly because of the rapid growth of the Israeli Arab population, but also due to substantial increases of the foreign immigrant population, now at about 250,000.

Soffer estimates that the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza will go up from 3.0 to 5.8 million. Thus the whole population of Sharon's "Greater Israel" will increase from 10.1 million, of which Jews are just under 50 per cent, to 15.5 million, of which Jews would be just over 40 per cent.

Right-wing Israeli researchers and US neoconservatives dispute these figures as overstating the growth of the Palestinian population, but unconvincingly.

This is the demographic reality to which Israeli leaders are responding with their changing plans for territorial borders. They fear that unless a two-state settlement is reached soon the choice would lie between a binational state, which would bring to an end the Zionist ideal of a state for the Jewish people, and an apartheid situation in which an Israeli minority would deny basic rights to an Arab majority under its control.

Both Sharon and the Labor leadership prefer an Israel in which Jews maintain their numerical majority, superior rights and cultural dominance so that the Zionist ambiguity between Jewish and Israeli can be maintained within a framework of what Israeli researchers dub an "ethnic democracy". Critics say it is racist.

Palestinian leaders have recently threatened to shift policy towards a binational state in response to Sharon's militarism. The approach appeals to Israeli Arabs and to left-wing intellectuals on both sides of the divide.

But most Jews in Israel and most Palestinians favour a two-state settlement. The main issue now is whether a Palestinian state would be anything more than a token, weak and fragmented entity.