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Sounding the Alarm About Israel’s Demographic Crisis

When Arnon Soffer first issued his warning in the 1980s — that Arabs would outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories by around 2010 — he was widely dismissed as a crackpot Jeremiah. Now the Israeli public and its leaders appear to have caught up with him.

Soffer, head of the geography department at the University of Haifa and a longtime lecturer at the Israeli army’s Staff and Command College, has influenced Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and hundreds of other Israeli political, military and economic leaders in recent years. In February 2001, on the night of his election as prime minister, Ariel Sharon sent an aide to ask Soffer for a copy of his original 1987 pamphlet about the demographic threats to Israel — the same study that had led Yasser Arafat to declare in the late 1980s that the “Palestinian womb” was his people’s greatest weapon.

The stark timetables of demography that Soffer published last summer in his updated report have become part of the ABCs of Israeli political knowledge, driving public opinion against holding on to the territories. Polls now show giant majorities in favor of withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the interior of the West Bank. Sharon himself, master builder of the settlements, announced a “disengagement plan” last month that includes the likely uprooting of some settlements in thickly populated Palestinian areas.

“I’ve been saying, ‘Folks, the State of Israel is coming to an end,’ and suddenly, in the last three years, the scales have fallen from people’s eyes,” said Soffer during a recent interview in his office. “The change in public opinion began with the intifada and the Israeli Arab riots, and then the suicide bombings. People realized this was a new situation.”

On first impression, Soffer, 68, seems a man of contradictions. Tall, robust and ebullient, with lively, friendly eyes, he pointed to the class photos from the Staff and Command College on his wall, ticking off all the soldiers he knew who were killed in battle. “I lost my brother in the War of Independence,” he said. “Since childhood I’ve lost nearly 200 friends and neighbors from Rishon Letzion” — his hometown — “and another 300 or thereabouts in the rest of the country. It’s a painful price. I’m always talking about death.”

Likewise, his politics seem contradictory. “I’m always being asked if I’m a left-winger or a right-winger,” he said. “I’m in favor of socially oriented economics, so that makes me a left-winger, but I’m against the increase of the Arab population in Israel, so I’m a right-winger, but I’m in favor of uprooting settlements, so I’m a left-winger. I tell people I’m exactly in the middle.”

He thinks the idea of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians is “utopian” and is convinced that even prominent Palestinian moderates like Yasser Abed Rabbo and Sari Nusseibeh are just suckering the Israeli left while actually planning to swallow Israel demographically.

He has a grudge against the liberal Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz and the dovish forces in general, whom he characterizes as “those bastards in Tel Aviv who don’t live with the Arabs, who’ve never been to Qalqilya or Ramallah and don’t know what they’re talking about.” In the “Proposed Solutions” section of his updated pamphlet, “Israeli Demography, 2003-2020 — Dangers and Opportunities,” he wrote: “A campaign should be started against traitorous academics and journalists who preach hatred of Israel at universities in Europe, the United States and Israel itself.”

Yet he also predicted that the army’s anticipated uprooting of illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank will be “the foundation stone of the State of Israel as a country with the rule of law.” As for the likelihood of mass resistance by settlers, including violence, he argued vehemently for “setting up prison facilities for 10,000 lawbreakers.”

Facing down the settlers on the hilltop outposts will be a fateful test for the government and army, and if they fail, he said, “Israel will become a banana republic.”

The only argument Soffer gets over the “demographic time bomb” comes from right-wing hardliners, especially settlers, who maintain that Jewish settlement here has been engulfed by Arabs since it began in earnest 120 years ago, and that if Zionists had been scared off by demography in the past they never would have built Israel. “They’re running away from the truth,” countered Soffer, “and it’s disgraceful.”

To defuse that “time bomb,” Soffer would give the Palestinians all of Gaza and 85% to 90% of the West Bank, excluding small sections just over the Green Line where the Jewish settlements are concentrated — roughly the sections now being surrounded by the new security fence. He used to insist on Israel’s keeping the Jordan Valley — the thinly populated band of territory in the West Bank along the Jordan River — to deter Iraq from coming through Jordan and invading Israel. But the American takeover of Iraq, he said, “means that the threat on Israel’s eastern border no longer exists.” Now he favors giving the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians: “Let them have it,” he said. He would also give up East Jerusalem — “Who needs it? Let Arafat take it and go to hell,” he said — except for the places holy to Jews like the Temple Mount and Mount of Olives.

In addition, he would make border adjustments for the Palestinians‚ giving them small sections on the Israeli side of the Green Line where Umm el-Fahm, Baka al-Gharbiya and several other Israeli Arab towns and villages lie.

He wrote: “If such a course is carried out, there will remain within the bounds of Israel in 2020 an Arab population of 1,300,000, [while the] Jewish population will then number six million. These are statistics that a Jewish-Zionist Israel can digest.” If the borders don’t change, he added, current population trends point in 2020 to 6,300,000 Jews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza combined — alongside 8,740,000 Arabs.

Not surprisingly, Soffer’s pioneering work on the Arab demographic “threat” hasn’t made him many Arab friends. Noting that his last name can be taken to mean “a counter,” he said with laugh, “In Arab circles they call me ‘Arnon the Arab-Counter.’” Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi, he added, calls him a fascist.

Soffer disputes this characterization, saying Israel should do much more than it has done for its Arab citizens, especially the poorest and most loyal of them, the Bedouins. A Jewish state can live with Arabs inside its borders, he said, but not with a majority of them.

“Behind us in the East is a world that still does not show signs of integrating into the new world; therefore, complete disconnection is necessary in the coming 10 to 20 years,” he wrote. Right wing or left wing, Soffer, a prophet of doom who was once a voice in the wilderness, is now the voice of the Israeli consensus.

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