Reviews | Israel is thriving, but changing demographics could be its downfall


Ronald S. Lauder is President of the World Jewish Congress and former US Ambassador to Austria.

On July 1, Yair Lapid became Israel’s 14th prime minister. Although he will only serve as a caretaker until the general elections are held on November 1, he has a unique opportunity to make history by helping his nation face a complicated reality: enormous economic success and policy coupled with a growing demographic challenge.

The State of Israel is experiencing a golden age. For more than 15 years – since the Second Lebanon War in 2006 – it has maintained relative calm, strategic stability and prosperity. The economy is booming: over the past decade, the average annual growth rate has been above 3.5%, accelerating to an astonishing level. 8 percent in 2021. The national debt ratio (in relation to GDP) is significantly lower than that of the United States; the unemployment rate is close to zero; and the standard of living continues to rise. The high-tech revolution has propelled Israel to the forefront of global technology, its unique spirit of innovation attracting investors from around the world.

The Jewish state has signed peace agreements with six Arab League countries, and its relationship with much of the Arab world is one of deep cooperation – de facto peace. Countries other than the United States, including China, Japan, India, Europe and Brazil, view Israel as a strategic partner. With its population approaching 10 million and its GDP per capita eclipsing that of the UK, Israel is an amazing success story. In many ways, the Israel of 2022 fulfilled both the Zionist dream of its founders and the Jewish people’s desire for renewal after the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust.

And yet the nation faces a grave existential threat – not just from Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but based on its own demographics. In 2020, for the first time in many decades, the Arab population living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan slightly exceeded the Jewish population, according to the analysis conducted by two research groups associated with Israel’s defense establishment. And despite some shifts in birth rate trends, this small Palestinian majority will become large in a decade or two. This means that if the status quo persists and Israel continues to rule the West Bank, it will in a relatively short time be faced with a cruel dilemma: if it gives the Palestinians full citizenship – and therefore all rights – it will not will be more Jewish. If it does not, it will no longer be democratic. Either way, Israel as a democratic Jewish state will cease to exist.

The profound changes that are disrupting Palestinian society further complicate the situation. According to a survey driven by Khalil Shikaki According to the well-regarded Palestinian Center for Policy and Polling think tank, around 25% of West Bank residents now favor negotiations with Israel, and only 28% still support a two-state solution. On the other hand, 55% approve of an armed struggle against Israel. Young Palestinians are turning their backs on ideas of reconciliation, compromise and partition and embracing the idea of ​​one state. The emerging demographic reality and increasingly divisive Palestinian mindset predict the Palestinian demand that Israel will likely soon face: one person, one vote.

No external threat is as dangerous to the Zionist enterprise as this internal threat. The basic premise of Zionism is that there should be a place on earth where Jews are in the majority – so that this majority can exercise its right to self-determination within a democratic framework. If the Jews do not have a solid majority in their own country, Zionism will collapse.

Unfortunately, an apathetic public and a dysfunctional political system prevent Israel from dealing with this problem. Suffering from terrorist attacks, most Israelis believe – rightly – that they should not back down under fire. But when the waves of terror subside, they feel no urgency to act, confident that they can continue to rule over millions of Palestinians without truly perilous consequences. Economic prosperity, military prowess and international prestige blind them to the fact that each passing day brings them closer to the abyss.

It is time for Israel’s friends and allies to make their voices heard. For the past 40 years, I have worked tirelessly for the Jewish state. I love Israel. I am committed to it and I am doing everything I can for it. But today it is my duty to call on the new Israeli Prime Minister to recognize his nation’s predicament and change course.

President Biden’s upcoming visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah presents a unique opportunity. The same goes for the emergence of a US-Arab-Israeli security alliance. Lapid must seek a creative way to address the Palestinian challenge, working hand in hand with the United States, the Sunni world and moderate Palestinians. Even if it seems impossible to achieve a two-state solution, the Prime Minister must do everything in his power to avert a one-state catastrophe. No other mission is as important — or as urgent. The very future of Israel is at stake.

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