JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s leading demographics expert on Tuesday defended military figures indicating the number of Arabs will soon equal that of Jews in the Holy Land — figures that had sparked outrage from nationalist lawmakers in parliament.
Sergio Della Pergola, a demographer from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said the numbers of Arabs and Jews are nearly equal when you factor in the population of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem along with the population of Israel.
Jews make up about 80 percent of Israel proper and advocates of a two-state solution have long warned the country risks losing its Jewish majority if a Palestinian state is not established alongside it.
Short of that, they warn, Israel will be faced with a daunting choice between becoming a binational state or one in which Arabs and other minorities do not have equal rights.
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Della Pergola said that there are currently about 6.9 million Jews in the Holy Land — including Israel and the Palestinian territories — compared to 6.5 million Arabs. He said the gap was likely to be closed completely within 15-20 years.
“These are the figures. You can either accept them or not,” he told The Associated Press. “For some, it may be uncomfortable so they say they are inaccurate but truthfully that is quite childish.”
Nationalist lawmakers assailed a senior military officer, Col. Haim Mendes, in parliament on Monday for saying there were nearly 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, accusing him of inflating the numbers. Mendes is a high ranking official in COGAT, the Israeli defense body for Palestinian civilian affairs.
Avi Dichter, a lawmaker from the ruling Likud Party and chairman for the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, called the figure “surprising” and asked for clarification.
Motti Yogev, a lawmaker from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, went a step further, accusing the official of relying on Palestinian figures and demanding that the true numbers be revealed.
The demographic issue lies at the core of the Israeli pursuit of a comprehensive peace accord with the Palestinians over the past two decades out of concern that Israel cannot fulfil its destiny as a Jewish and democratic state given these trends. Such data undermines the prevailing thought of the current government, which has largely ruled out the concept of a Palestinian state and dismisses the demographic threat.
Della Pergola said he could respect the opposing ideologies but that the figures themselves should not be questioned. He said COGAT had the best grasp of the situation on the ground.
He added that while Jewish birth rates were catching up with those of Arabs, mostly due to the high fertility rates among ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Arab population was much younger and therefore dying at a slower rate.