Israel’s internal demographic catastrophe | National interest
“Ten years go by in the blink of an eye” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said, in its sustained offensive against the Iran nuclear deal. The implication of the declaration is that the agreement reached in Vienna allows Iran two options in its quest for a nuclear weapon: either cheat during the life of the agreement, or, conversely, maintain the agreement for the duration – a decade, maybe more or less, depending on how you interpret it – and only then turn into a weapons capability. The deal does not go far enough, Netanyahu wants the world to know, both in its constraints and in its duration. As Netanyahu initially stated in his speech to Congress last March, “A decade may seem like a long time in political life, but it is a blink of an eye in the life of a nation. It is a nod to the lives of our children. Without dwelling on the merits of the Iran nuclear deal itself, it is worth asking what kind of place Israel will be in ten to fifteen years, when the proverbial sun begins to set on the Iran nuclear deal. (a question given the additional immediacy of the attacks late last week at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem and a Palestinian village in the West Bank).
At the beginning of June, at the prestigious Israeli fair Herzlia ConferencePresident Reuven Rivlin used his speech to attempt to answer the above question. Renouncing any discussion on Iran, as well as the mention of the external Palestinian demographic threat (or indeed, the word “Palestinian”) to Israel’s future as both a Jewish and a democratic state, Rivlin chose instead to emphasize the evolution of Israel internal demography in a historic speech entitled: “The new Israeli order.“
As late as the 1990s, Rivlin observed, Israeli society was founded on a clear and strong dominant Zionist majority, with three small minorities by its side: the Arabs (i.e., Palestinian citizens of Israel proper), the ultra-Orthodox (Haredis) and religious nationalists (i.e. settlers). Now, Rivlin has explained using pie charts projected onto a giant screen, “the demographic processes that are restructuring or reshaping the shape of Israeli society have, in fact, created a ‘new Israeli order’ … in which it is not. There is no longer a clear majority, nor clear minority groups. In 1990, 52% of elementary school students in Israel were in the public school system, known as “mamlachti” education, a Hebrew term that combines a sense of mainstream Zionism and state rule. With their separate school systems, Arabs at the time made up 23 percent of elementary school children; Haredis, 9%; and religious nationalists, 16 percent.
Using the projections for 2018, Rivlin said, the proportion of first graders in the Mamlachti public school system will drop to just 38 percent. Haredi will increase their numbers to 28%, Arabs to 25%, and religious nationalists will remain almost stable at 15% (a strange statistic probably having to do with this clearly growing segment of the population that often chooses to send their children either. public school system or ultra-Orthodox institutions).
“The Israeli New Order is not an apocalyptic prophecy,” Rivlin said. “It’s reality.”
How would Israel continue to be a developed economy, Rivlin wondered, with half of the future workforce – Arabs and Haredis – severely under-represented? The current situation was just not sustainable, Rivlin warned: “Math is simple; any child can see it. In the past, Rivlin said, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was the “main tool for making Israel,” where disparate segments of the population came together and got to know each other. And yet, in the “new Israeli order,” nearly half of the population would not serve in the military since Arabs and Haredi seldom identify as Zionists.
Politicians issuing a heart cry against a shrinking share of the Israeli population working, paying taxes, and serving in the military – thus supporting (and defending) the rest – did not start with Rivlin’s speech. Yair Lapid, the former finance minister, has built his nascent political career in recent years on such a platform.
“You are all parents,” I heard him say to high school students in Tel Aviv during the election campaign in early 2013. “Each of you has a child in [the ultra-Orthodox city of] Bnei Brak that you support. This state of affairs, said Lapid, speaking on behalf of much of middle secular Israel, was not only unjust, but economically and socially untenable. “I’m afraid for my own children,” he said then. “I’m afraid they will see Miami or New York or London or Amsterdam” as realistic destinations for emigration.
The difference between Rivlin’s speech and Lapid’s speech is the difference between the last two general elections in Israel. In 2013, Lapid entered government and succeeded in pushing through major legislation reducing government grants distributed to the Haredis, in addition to new laws eliminating the traditional ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service. In the last election last March, the ultra-Orthodox parties were brought back to power by Prime Minister Netanyahu (he needed it for his new governing coalition). Their price? A re-establishment of these same subsidies and a relaxation of the sanctions for the rebellious Haredim. Serious change will, apparently, have to wait. The question is whether Israel can afford it, given the changing demographic realities described above.
The dirty secret of the last election is that the Israeli right, at large, won convincingly, but it could have done better. Right-wing parties, including the ultra-Orthodox and the more centrist party of new Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, won 67 of the 120 Knesset seats. This compares to the poor 53 seats of the Israeli left, down from an almost equal right-left split in 2013 (61-59).
And yet, in the last elections, a far-right party, the extremist Yachad, was only five thousand votes from crossing the electoral threshold to Knesset and get a few more seats. Reports said that a rebel rabbi in Jerusalem ordered his supporters to boycott the vote, which likely cost ultra-Orthodox parties one or two seats. The Israeli left had against an unpopular sitting prime minister, increased participation (especially in the Arab community) and a very conducive media climate claiming the head of Netanyahu – and it still could not muster more than 53 votes in total.
The political demographics inside Israel must therefore be examined for explanations. As Rivlin put it in his speech, the very “ownership structure” of Israeli society and the State of Israel is changing before our eyes. While Rivlin emphasized economic, social and cultural challenges – and called for a new philosophy of “partnership” between Israel’s four minority “tribes” – the real challenge may well be political.
It is now an open question whether the Israeli political system can still create results and coalitions that will be able to tackle and resolve the many existential challenges facing the country. Rivlin, as mentioned, has chosen to ignore the millions of Palestinians still living under Israeli control in the West Bank, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue, focusing only on Israel’s internal demographics. Yet the agenda he presented must serve as a wake-up call. “Anyone who is not ready to ask these questions today” he said, “Is no longer Zionist or nationalist, but rather ignores the most important challenge facing the Zionist project today”.
Israel’s new government, dominated as it is by ultra-Orthodox and pro-colonist elements, does not offer much hope for real structural change. But based on Israel’s demographic trend lines, the future might not be brighter.
A little over a decade from now, when Netanyahu believes Iran might rush the bomb, all of those Israeli elementary students will be aspiring adults and voters. Will a system have already been instituted to integrate the Haredis and Arabs into the Israeli army, labor force and society? And if not, will parts of the secular middle class – the natural constituency of a more pluralist regime (and of the peace process) – have, as Lapid warned, begun to decamp for a New York, an Amsterdam or a London? And what about the settler population in the West Bank, which stood at 120,000 in 1993, but has now grown to 350,000 (not counting East Jerusalem), with a growth rate twice the Judeo-Israeli national average?
Finally, and perhaps most alarmingly, in the absence of a credible political horizon for a two-state solution, how Palestinian society – 40% of which are currently under the age of fourteen – will react. to a deadlocked status quo?
In other words, the demographics inside Israeli and Palestinian societies, and not Between them, will likely prove decisive, regardless of what Iran decides to do. A few years ago, as I was relating a story about the Beit El settlement in the West Bank, I was walking the streets with my host, a charming local official. “You see all the kids,” he said with a smile, in response to a question I hadn’t asked. “It’s demographics. We win, with our cocks. He was definitely not talking about the Palestinians, nor the distant Iranians. He was firmly targeting his own country and what the future would inexorably bring him, in the blink of an eye.