Voodoo Demographics

By Roberta Seid, Michael L. Wise, Bennett Zimmerman

Why the Palestinians radically inflate their population figures—and what this means for the future of the Middle East.

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emography has always been a driving force in the 120-year-old Arab-Jewish conflict. Indeed, modern Zionism’s dream of restoring the Jewish nation to its ancestral homeland seemed feasible in part because the region was then so sparsely populated. When modern aliya, or Jewish immigration, began in 1880, fewer than 500,000 people lived in the corner of the Ottoman Empire that would become the Palestine Mandate. And while the mix of ethnic groups collectively referred to as Arabs, or “Orientals,” formed the bulk of the Mandate’s population at the time, Jews were already the majority in Jerusalem. With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the waves of immigration that followed, Jews indeed quickly became the majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Today, however, many believe that the demographic pendulum is swinging the other way. A “demographic time bomb” is ticking, it is said, in which Arabs will soon outnumber Jews in the areas under Israel’s control. Indeed, when the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) reported 2004 population of 3.83 million is added to the 1.3 million Israeli Arabs, the new total—5.1 million Arabs—rapidly approaches parity with Israel’s 5.5 million Jews. This number, coupled with PA claims to the world’s highest growth rate and a high Israeli Arab birthrate, as well, has led to the widely held conviction that the Jews will soon become a minority west of the Jordan River—and that the idea of a Jewish state with an enduring Jewish majority will be severely undermined.
This perception of the region’s demographic situation has had a profound effect on recent Arab and Israeli strategies vis-à-vis the determination of Israel’s final borders. Historically, it has been in the minority’s interest to accept the partition of territory, while the majority lays claim to the entire land. Accordingly, the Jewish minority during the Mandate period acquiesced to the excision of three-fourths of the Mandate to create the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in 1922, and, after the Arabs had persuaded the British to limit Jewish immigration to restricted areas in the remainder of Palestine, agreed to the 1937 and 1947 partition proposals. In contrast, the Mandate’s Arab majority all along demanded a one-state solution. Only in 1988, after the Arabs had become the clear regional minority, did the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership finally acquiesce, at least provisionally, to a two-state solution.
Today, the existential threat posed to the State of Israel by the specter of an Arab majority has resulted in a decisive policy shift on the part of the Jews. Portraying the high growth forecasts for the Palestinian and Israeli Arab populations as an inexorable force of nature poised to engulf Israel and doom the Zionist enterprise, then-Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned in 2003 that “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.”1 Also in 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Likud Central Committee, “The idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation… is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy.”2 Today, while both Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni maintain that Israel has historic and security rights to the West Bank, they are nonetheless committed to further unilateral disengagement, couching their argument less in terms of Palestinian rights than basing it on demographic grounds.
For their part, the Palestinians have consistently seen the demographic time bomb as a weapon guaranteeing Palestinian victory in the century-long struggle with the Jews. Alongside the claim of Palestinian rights, it is the belief in the eventual Arab demographic dominance that has continued to sustain the Palestinian will to fight at a time when much of the Arab world has reconciled itself to Israel’s existence. “The womb of the Palestinian woman,” Yasser Arafat was fond of saying, “will defeat the Zionists.”
These deep-rooted assumptions about a demographic time bomb, however, are wrong. A careful review of the data behind these forecasts reveals that Israel does not, in fact, face an imminent demographic threat from any combination of Arab population groups. Rather, the source of much of Israel’s anxiety may be traced to inaccurate numbers issued by the Palestinian Authority and taken for granted by the rest of the world—numbers that paint a very different picture.

Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid, and Michael L. Wise are the authors of The Arab Population in the West Bank and Gaza: The Million Person Gap, recently published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel. Population Forecast for Israel and West Bank 2025 debuted in Israel at the Herzliya Conference and in the United States at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.

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