It’s demographic security, stupid

Why are we leaving the Gaza Strip? This seemingly innocuous question is at the heart of the Israeli public controversy over disengagement. Because so many Israelis don’t have a clear idea as to the real rationale for the move, they are easy prey for the pumped-up religious, pioneering, and "democratic" themes of the settler lobby’s anti-disengagement campaign.

Prime Minister Sharon, who co-opted the disengagement idea from the left and center, gave it political life, and galvanized majority support, has proven incredibly inarticulate in explaining it to the public. He cites political imperatives, meaning the need to preempt more far-reaching initiatives for territorial compromise. He describes the withdrawal from Gaza as a kind of redeployment of the settlements based on inescapable facts-on-the-ground. And here and there he offhandedly presents a laundry list of the benefits of disengagement, running from security via politics to demography.

Did he say demography? Ah, yes, somewhere at the back of his list is the fact that removing 7,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza and disentangling them from 1.3 million Palestinians offers Israel demographic benefits. Sharon apparently downplays demography because to highlight it would put the spotlight on his own central role of settling the West Bank and Gaza in the course of the past three decades, thereby creating the demographic problem in the first place.

In fact, demography is the only persuasive rationale for carrying out disengagement unilaterally. The political benefits are doubtful and problematic, certainly for Sharon: leaving Gaza is likely to increase rather than decrease pressures on Israel to withdraw from additional territories–witness the international community’s insistence on viewing disengagement as a stage in the roadmap; and, by definition, there will be no Palestinian quid pro quo for our unilateral gesture.

Nor will disengagement necessarily generate military security gains: the benefits of no longer having to protect the Gaza settlements are liable to be balanced by the cost incurred in projecting, in the eyes of Palestinian militants, weakness by withdrawing and thereby encouraging a new round of terrorism in the West Bank. This judgment applies to the economic benefits, too: disengagement is good for Israel’s economy only insofar as it is seen as part of a peace process and is followed by tranquility–neither of which is a sure bet.

Only demography is a sure bet, particularly if and when Israel completes the withdrawal by turning over the philadelphi strip to Palestinian and Egyptian security forces. This will mean 1.3 million fewer Palestinians under direct or indirect Israeli rule. It will stem our slide down the slippery slope toward the South Africanization of our conflict with the Palestinians. It will point us in the right direction toward ending direct and indirect occupation in the West Bank, too. It will show us the way out of the current brutalization of Israeli society. The demographic rationale overshadows all the other reasons, many of them doubtful, for disengagement, and justifies the move regardless of the possible drawbacks.

True, bearing in mind the current population ratio–an almost equal number of Arabs and Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, with the Arab population growing faster–withdrawal from Gaza is not enough. Indeed, even if the right wing revisionist demographers are right, and there are currently one million more Jews than Arabs between the river and the sea, there is no future for either people when 60 percent (Jews) rule directly and indirectly over the remaining 40 percent (Arabs) within a single geographic space in which the two populations have become interlocked thanks to Israeli settlements.

One could go even further, as some settler leaders do, and argue that the mere presence within Israel of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, currently 20 percent of the population but growing in relative size compared to rates of Jewish population growth, constitutes a demographic time bomb that will threaten Israel’s capacity to remain a Jewish and a democratic state some 30 or 40 years from now. These settler leaders would have us believe that Palestinian autonomy (which they vehemently opposed) now constitutes genuine independence–hence the residents of the West Bank and Gaza are no longer a demographic threat to Israel’s security.

But Palestinians are not independent unless they establish a recognized, sovereign state, or at least function like one. Until then we are legally their occupiers, and their demography is potentially our demography.

We have to start somewhere righting the demographic balance, and Gaza is the right place and the right precedent. The demographic rationale dictates that Gaza disengagement be followed by withdrawal from most of the West Bank, including the areas of Jerusalem where some 230,000 Palestinians dwell. Then we must find ways to rationalize the status of Israel’s own Palestinian citizens as a national minority within a Jewish and democratic state–ways that generate prosperity and equality, thereby reducing birthrates. These remain huge challenges. But withdrawal from Gaza buys us precious time to deal with them, and for the first time since 1967 generates momentum in the right direction.

It’s too bad Sharon cannot, or will not, say these things directly, emphatically, and repeatedly to the Israeli public. It’s demographic security, stupid!