A revisionist study of Palestinian demographics — undermining the arguments for Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan —was given red carpet treatment this week at several American citadels of pro-Israel support, including two conservative think tanks and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The controversial study, which was presented this week at the Heritage Foundation and at the American Enterprise Institute, claims that there are far fewer Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza than generally assumed, eliminating the specter of the so-called demographic threat that has helped drive Sharon’s plan. It was a key shot in an escalating war being waged by Sharon’s opponents for the hearts of American Jews and their allies.
In Israel, settler leaders were predicting that thousands of Jewish and Christian Americans were sending money and prepared to take to the streets in Israel in an effort to block Sharon from implementing his plan.
The mobilization of opposition to the Gaza pullout plan comes as world leaders, including Sharon and President Bush, are applauding the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority. Both Bush and Sharon said that they planned to meet with the newly elected Palestinian leader, in sharp contrast to their refusal to sit with Yasser Arafat. But as disengagement opponents prepare to do battle, a chorus of conservative American voices are taking aim at the notion that Abbas is a suitable negotiating partner.
“I intend to work to make sure we don’t give Mahmoud Abbas a pass here,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginian Republican and House Majority Whip. “He has a lot to prove before Congress and the administration can fully fund what the P.A. wants…. There has to be concrete action [to prove democratic and peaceful intentions] before Congress should agree to giving them funding.”
Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, said he would be speaking to congressional colleagues next week about the issue.
Cantor cited Abbas’s “horrible rhetoric” during the campaign, his being carried on the shoulders of a terrorist and his use of the term “Zionist enemy” to describe Israel. “Most troubling,” Cantor said, was Abbas’s “bringing up… of the ‘right of return’” for Palestinian refugees.
Cantor said he wants Abbas to promote “transparency in Palestinian government and freedom of the press, and to end incitement and the official government line of hatred of Israel.”
The Presidents Conference, meanwhile, was being criticized by some liberals for its decision to host the authors of the new study on Palestinian demographics.
“It strikes me that the conference, which has not been eager to embrace the disengagement plan from Gaza, seems willing to hear such a study,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “There is a clear political agenda in the study.”
The conference, an umbrella organization of 52 national associations widely seen as the Jewish community’s consensus voice on Middle East affairs, failed to issue a specific endorsement of Sharon’s plan before it was approved by the Knesset in TK. Some conference members, who claim that the umbrella group, which by tradition operates on consensus, was being held hostage by a handful of right-wing members, criticized that failure.
At the time, the Presidents Conference’s chairman, James Tisch, and executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, defended their handling of the issue, noting that they sent out a statement declaring that many members of the conference did support Sharon’s disengagement plan.
Liberal and centrist critics also complained that the organization’s leaders were slow to bring up the issue for debate. Members were only asked to weigh in after the Anti-Defamation League, tired of what it perceived as foot dragging on the part of conference leaders, began inviting other groups to sign a statement in support of the plan.
Hoenlein did not return a call seeking comment about the decision to host the authors of the controversial study.
Put together by a group of American and Israelis and promoted by Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli diplomat known for his hawkish views, the study asserts that some 2.4 million Palestinians live in the Palestinian territories, rather than the 3.8 million claimed by the P.A. and endorsed by leading Israeli demographers.
Bennett Zimmerman, a Los Angeles-based business consultant who funded and wrote the study, argued that there was not “one political comment” in the work, which he said is based on figures provided by the P.A.
But in a press release announcing the study, the authors argued that the “assumption that Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza pose a demographic threat to Israel has to be radically revised.” At the end of an accompanying letter, Ettinger wrote “Hang tough,” an apparent reference to the need to oppose Sharon’s plan.
The authors of the study claim they were asked to present their findings to the American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation after being endorsed by two American demographers.
The study contends that Jews continue to maintain a solid 60% majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, in direct contradiction to the findings of population studies conducted in Israel by professors Arnon Sofer and Sergio Della Pergola. They concluded that Jews currently make up 50% of the overall population in Israel and the territories. Sofer estimated that Jews will be a minority of 40% in 2020, while Della Pergola maintains the figure will be 46.7%, including foreign workers.
Della Pergola called the new study “groundless,” politically slanted and baseless from a research perspective. None of the signatories to the document is a professional demographic researcher. Among its authors are Ettinger, a former Israeli consul in Texas and a longtime opponent of the peace process with the Palestinians; former West Bank Civil Administration Head Brigadier General David Shahaf and former Israeli health official Professor Ezra Zohar. In addition to Zimmerman, the American participants were historian Roberta Seid of the University of South Carolina and businessman Michael Wise.
Zimmerman blasted Israeli demographers “who didn’t do their homework when presenting their own findings as part of other political documents.”
“That reputation is probably what is at risk and that is why people are using the ‘It’s political’ argument against our dispassionate, but very compelling, study,” he added.
Zimmerman said the study was submitted to Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographic expert with the American Enterprise Institute, and to Murray Feshbach, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, both of whose “positive assessment” led to presentations this week at AEI and the Heritage Foundation.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a leading American Jewish supporter of a two-state solution, said he was “enormously skeptical” about the study’s findings, which he claims ran counter to the conclusions of demographers from the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency. He added that even if the findings were accurate, it would not eliminate the need to deal with the problems created by Israel having to maintain control over a large Arab minority.
The study claims that the updated 2004 statistic presented by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics on the Palestinian population in the territories — 3.8 million people — is unreliable. It doesn’t incorporate a drop in fertility or the emigration from territory under the control of the P.A., which they estimate at hundreds of thousands. In addition, the study states that the 3.8 million figure includes about 200,000 residents of East Jerusalem, who are also counted in the Israeli census.
According to the new study, Palestinian population growth was 2.4% in 2003, not the 4.5% reported by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
In 2003, the population in Israel grew by 1.7%.
E.J. Kessler and Ha’aretz contributed to this report.