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If Israel’s Arab Citizens Indeed Are a ‘demographic Bomb,’ Can It Be Diffused?

There’s not much on which right and left see eye to eye in Israeli politics.

But one point they agree on is that Arabs represent a demographic threat to the Jewish state. The debate centers around whether that threat comes from within Israel or in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and how to overcome the threat, with each side using the demographic issue to promote its own agenda.

The left, led by such figures as the chairman of the Labor Party, Shimon Peres, argue that Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank and Gaza distorts the balance of Jews and Arabs in the Jewish state, and Israel should therefore withdraw.

But when it comes to Israel’s own Arab citizens, the left often is silent. And when a right-wing politician speaks out on the matter, it often gets him in politically incorrect hot water.

Last week, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu created an uproar when he referred to Israel’s 1 million-plus Arab citizens as a “demographic bomb” threatening the Jewish state.

Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab, said Netanyahu would soon “spray us with spermicide.”

Columnist Bet Michael wrote in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot, “It turned out once again that there was only one criterion to the Jewishness of the Jewish state, the quantitative criterion: The more Jews, the more Jewishness.”

Was the difference between Peres and Netanyahu a matter of double standards? Yes and no.

Yes, because left wingers use demographic arguments when it suits their agenda but publicly criticize such arguments when they don’t. And no, because there is a difference in the consequences of policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian Arabs versus Israel’s own Arab citizens.

The left wants to resolve the demographic problem in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by withdrawing Israelis from those areas.

Critics say the message of Netanyahu, a right winger, was that if Israel wants to preserve its Jewish identity, Arab citizens should be encouraged to leave Israel proper.

Jewish population growth is dwarfed by that of Arabs, who have more children, and Jewish immigration to Israel has dropped off considerably.

Netanyahu’s critics conveniently disregarded that latter point, which the finance minister made in his speech.

Netanyahu suggested that Israel needs a policy to balance two unattractive options: Either Israel’s Arabs will “beautifully integrate” and become 35 to 40 percent of Israel’s population, with Israel’s becoming a binational state, or Arabs will remain 20 percent of Israel’s population and relations between Arabs and Jews will become “harsh and violent.”

Paradoxically, this is exactly what outspoken advocates of Arab integration into Israeli society have been saying for years: Yes, there is a bomb, they say. Arab leaders often use the term “time bomb” to refer to their own grievances.

Moreover, Arab commentators have used the same demographic arguments as Netanyahu to promote their own political aims.

Wahid Abdul Meguid, editor of the Arab Strategic Report of Egypt’s Al-Ahram Institute for Strategic Studies, once wrote, “The Arabs of 1948″ — Israel’s Arab citizens — “will become a majority in Israel within less than half a century. This means that they are the ones who will put an end to the conflict, by turning racist Israel into a Palestinian pluralistic country, in which the Jews will live side by side with the others,” in a translation provided by the Middle East Media and Research Institute.

Recent figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics support this trend. By the year 2020, the proportion of non-Jews in Israel will increase to 23 percent, from 19 percent today.

Everyone agrees that there is a demographic bomb; the question is what should be done to ensure that it does not harm the Jewish state.

In his speech, Netanyahu argued that the problem needs to be addressed now.

If there is a demographic bomb, it is largely the responsibility of Israel’s governments from the very first days of the state, he said.

By generously subsidizing multichild families — a policy mostly intended for fervently Orthodox families, but which has benefited large Arab families, too — the government has encouraged Arab family growth.

By systematically neglecting the basic needs of Israel’s Arab population, particularly with regard to housing, work opportunities and education, Israel has fostered Arab resentment against the Jewish state.

Therefore, Netanyahu said, Israel needs to develop a policy that will give Israel’s Arab citizens a true sense of belonging to the state.

Following the October 2000 riots by Israel’s Arabs, the government launched a four-year plan called the Four Billion Shekel Plan to narrow the gaps between Israel’s Jewish and Arab sectors in such fields as infrastructure development and job creation.

But according to a report by the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, most government ministries cut their budgets for the Arab sector in 2002. The Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel estimates that it would actually take about $4 billion to make Israel’s Arab sector on par with Israel’s Jewish sector.

That is not to say that the burden should fall only on the government. Undoubtedly, Arab leaders should contribute their share to alleviate Jewish con cerns.

Knesset member Azmi Beshara, who wants Israel to become a “state of all its citizens,” suggested last week that it was in the Arabs’ own interest to have fewer children in order to afford them greater opportunities.

What Beshara did not say was that part of the problem is a hostile political atmosphere toward Israel among the state’s Arabs. Beshara himself has faced scathing criticism for associating with some of Israel’s greatest enemies on visits to Syria over the last decade.

A report last week showed that only 43 Arab citizens of Israel have been detained this year for suspected involvement in anti-Israel terrorist activity against the state. The report by the General Security Service, cited by Ha’aretz, showed a 45 percent drop in terrorist activity among Israel’s Arabs from 2002, and a 16 percent drop from 2001.

The figures not only dealt a blow to the conventional wisdom that Israel’s Arabs tend to unite forces with their Palestinian brethren, but also that it might not be too late to dismantle the bomb.

Helping Israel’s Arabs achieve a higher standard of living could increase their integration into Israeli society — and diffuse the demographic bomb.

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