Avigdor Lieberman’s Bright Idea


By Sergio DellaPergola

Published March 18, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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Avigdor Lieberman’s electoral success has been a cause of alarm in Israel and abroad. Lieberman’s critics are justifiably concerned by his often inflammatory rhetoric, as well as his demand that the right to vote be made contingent upon citizens taking a loyalty oath — a policy totally unacceptable in a democratic society.

One of Lieberman’s more controversial proposals is his call to surrender Israeli Arab population centers to eventual Palestinian sovereignty as part of a land swap. Within the framework of an eventual Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, he advocates annexing major Israeli settlement blocs and in exchange handing over to the Palestinians Israel’s Triangle region, an almost entirely Arab-populated strip of land just inside the 1967 Green Line, extending from the city of Umm al-Fahm in the north down to Kafr Qassem in the south.

Many view this proposal as part and parcel of what they see as Lieberman’s xenophobic agenda. But his critics should not be so quick to write off this idea simply because of the political leanings of its most prominent supporter. Such a land swap may even be necessary to ensure Israel’s long-term political and demographic stability.

While Lieberman is often labeled a far-rightist, the notion of swapping sovereignty over the Triangle is not a far-right idea. On the left, former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, a committed dove and until recently a prominent member of the Labor Party, has been an advocate of this very notion. And in 2002 Ehud Barak said that “such an exchange makes demographic sense and is not inconceivable” (though he cautioned that it “could only be done by agreement”). Indeed, underlying this idea is a principle that has long been championed by the left and is today supported by a majority of Israelis: the concept of two states for two peoples.

Most Israelis know that Israel must withdraw from the West Bank if it is to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state. But even if Israel does so, the underlying demographic dynamic will continue to yield a constant erosion of Israel’s Jewish majority.

In 2008, Arabs comprised 21% of the inhabitants of Israel (including East Jerusalem but not West Bank Palestinians). Because of higher Arab fertility rates, however, 25% of all births in Israel are to Arab families. Moreover, because of a much younger age composition, Arabs account for only 10% of all deaths in Israel. Thus, in 2008, excluding international migration, 30% of Israel’s natural population increase was in the Arab sector.

The present trend generates a steady growth of the Arab share of Israel’s population. Israel’s Arab population is expected to reach 23% in 2020 and 27% in 2050, while the share of Arabs among children younger than 15 will likely be 30% by 2020.

These numbers point toward a bi-national state, not to the Jewish state that most Israelis prefer. With two small adjustments to the Green Line, however, this demographic outlook can be radically transformed.

The Triangle region has an Arab population of some 250,000; another 250,000 Arabs reside in East Jerusalem. Together these two areas cover about 3% of Israel’s territory but are home to more than a third of Israel’s 1.4 million Arabs. By redrawing the frontier between Israel and the West Bank to place the Triangle and East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian control, the Jewish proportion of the Israeli population would increase from the current 79% to 87%.

Under this scenario, the Jewish share of the population would remain well above 80% into the 2030s and beyond. Concern about Israel’s demographic composition would be postponed to a distant future, by which time the respective growth rates of the Jewish and Arab populations may well have converged.

True, this proposal has not been greeted warmly by the Triangle’s Arab residents. Israeli Arabs know that becoming citizens of a Palestinian state would involve a trade-off: Gains in the realm of national identity would likely be accompanied by losses in the areas of civil liberties, democratic rights and standard of living. As a result, for many Arabs remaining Israeli citizens while fighting for a separate identity within Israel — and, for some, demanding an alteration of the core identity of the Jewish state — seems like a better option. But it is also a recipe for heightened tensions and ongoing strife within Israeli society.

It is worth remembering that the text of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, adopted on November 29, 1947, called for the partition of British Mandate Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state — not an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. This solution was intended to solve a complicated conflict by recognizing the relevance and legitimacy of two distinct identities. Division along ethno-religious lines, possibly followed by economic cooperation, was the right solution back in 1947, and it still might be the only viable one now.

Sergio DellaPergola holds the Shlomo Argov Chair on Israel-Diaspora Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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