Monday, April 24, 2006

By Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid and Michael L. Wise

As Israel begins a critical national debate about the future of the West Bank, fear of an inevitable Arab demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish population underlies the discussion. Acting Prime MinisterEhudOlmert characterized the urgency of the situation in 2003: “Above all hovers the cloud of demographics. It will come down on us not in the end of days, but in just another few years.” Such views are a natural outcome of widely distributed demographic forecasts based on Palestinian Authority population reports for the West Bank and Gaza and on pessimistic assumptions about future Jewish growth.

But the doomsday scenario for Israeli Jews is wrong.

Last year, our American-Israeli research team calculated the 2004 Arab population in the West Bank and Gaza at 2.5 million (1.4 million in the West Bank and 1.1 million in Gaza) instead of the 3.8 million forecast reported as fact by the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). Uncovering this gap of 1.3 million removed more Arabs from Israel’s demographic outlook than did the Gaza disengagement.

Corroborated by evidence from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and Central Elections Commission, the research established that the PCBS 1997 population base included Jerusalem Arabs already counted in Israel’s population surveys and hundreds of thousands of overseas residents. On top of this expanded base, the PCBS built unrealized birth forecasts and assumptions of mass immigration that never occurred. Israel’s border records showed steady net Arab emigration both to countries abroad and into pre-1967Israeland Jerusalem. Indeed, Jewish growth rates since 1997 have surpassed West Bank Arab growth: 2.1 percent versus 1.8 percent, not because of low Arab fertility, but because of significant emigration from the West Bank.

The magnitude of the errors in PCBS reports — its 2004 population estimate was inflated by more than 50 percent — requires politicians, policy-makers and international aid agencies to revisit their forecasts.

Demographers have issued gloomy predictions for Israeli Jews by accepting the faulty PCBS population data and by ignoring evidence of growing Jewish fertility and decelerating Arab growth. Forecasters have maintained that the “demographic momentum” of a young population will inevitably propel Arabs to majority status.

Unfortunately, they apply this theory to persons who are living abroad or were never born. Furthermore, their failure to consider significant Jewish immigration in any future scenario repeats mistakes made in the 1980s when demographers denied the possibility of significant immigration from the Soviet Union. In reality, 1 million immigrants arrived. The recent upturn in American Jewish immigration to Israel calls for further study, not systematic dismissal. The dynamic growth in orthodox Jewish communities in the United States with active ties to Israel (as well as recent events in France and the former Soviet Union) deserves attention and analysis. Ignoring these potential pools of immigration lays the foundation for more deeply flawed forecasts.

Our “Forecast for Israel and West Bank 2025” uses the corrected population information for the West Bank and updates a forecast for Israeli Arabs and Jews made by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS). Jewish fertility over the past five years has now risen above the highest level considered by the ICBS. In contrast, the Israeli Arab sector is approaching the lowest fertility levels of the ICBS forecast.

In the mid-case scenario, Israeli Jews maintain current fertility of 2.7 children per woman (the highest rate in the West) and net immigrationaverages 20,000 per year. Israeli Arab fertility rates continue their downward trend from the current 4.0 to 3.0. Using U.N. forecasts, West Bank fertility levels of 5.4 gradually fall to 3.24.

With these parameters, the Jewish population will form a 63 percent majority in Israel and the West Bank by 2025. In a high-case scenario — greater Jewish immigration and fertility boosted by rising Orthodox birth rates — Jews would grow to 71 percent of the total population from today’s 67 percent majority. The only likely challenge to the Jewish position would come from large-scale Arab immigration into the West Bank from countries abroad or through safe-passage zones from Gaza.

There are many bright possibilities for Israeli Jews — a community that displays world-class and healthy demographic indicators. Rather than facing a demographic time bomb, Israel could well be holding the demographic trump card.

Bennett Zimmerman is a former strategy consultant with Bain & Company and currently is managing partner of the U.S.-based Israel Emerging Growth Fund. Roberta Seid is a historian and former lecturer on gender studies at the University of Southern California. Michael L. Wise is the founder and director of a wide range of public and private companies in the United States and Israel.

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