From the River to the Sea, Palestinians Are Now a Majority. What Next for Israel?

Faisal Al Yafai

As so often in politics, a political earthquake can be revealed in a fragment. That happened in Israel at the very end of March, when a seemingly anodyne debate about striking civil servants exploded into an argument about the very deepest fractures in Israeli society. The debate started because of a strike over pay by Israeli civil servants who administer the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. Haim Mendes, the deputy head of COGAT, the acronym for the military body that polices the occupation, said that Tel Aviv was giving them less money even as the number of Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank was growing. COGAT’s figures put the total number of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza at five million.


One figure, but a political earthquake. Added to the 1.8 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, that means the Palestinian population under Israeli rule is now 6.8 million – as against the 6.5 million Jews that Israel’s census bureau most recently said lived in Israel. Given that those figures don’t include the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, itself a hugely contested figure, it means that Palestinians are now being ruled by a Jewish minority.


Minority rule is hugely controversial in Israel for many reasons. There’s the existential belief, still strong in parts of Israeli society, that Jews should protect themselves but not dominate others. Then, there’s the concern about what kind of society a minority-ruled state would be. Also, there’s the international isolation that will continue once it is widely established that Palestinians are the majority. Ultimately the numbers matter: if Palestinians remain a minority, Israel can still become a full democracy; if they are the majority, true democracy is incompatible with a Jewish state. The future character of Israel, justice for Palestinians and the how the country is dealt with by the international community all turn on these dry numbers.


Unsurprisingly, therefore, the immediate reaction was to seek ways to debunk the figures, particularly from the right-wing of Israeli politics that is now dominant. Settler leaders said the figures must be wrong, blaming, for some reason, Palestinians for the error. But when even a personality such as Tzipi Livni, a hardliner who was foreign minister during the 2008 war on Gaza, warns that Israelis must “wake up from the delusions of annexation,” it is clear a change is needed.


Demography has lain at the heart of the Israeli project, since even before the founding of the state. It is the reason why there is a “law of return” for Jewish people anywhere in the world who wish to settle in Israel, but why the “right of return” of Palestinians forced out of their ancestral homes is refused.


The difficulty is that impartial statistics are hard to come by. Researchers on both sides are guilty of bias, inflating the numbers of their favored community. That was why the COGAT admission was so telling; it seemed like an unexpected moment of truth.


The fact is that demographic parity will become a reality, if it is not so already – whether it is accepted by Israeli leaders or not, whether creative accounting keeps it at bay for a few more months or several more years. Sooner or later, the evidence that Jews in Israel are a minority ruling over a non-Jewish majority will become overwhelming. And then what?


Addressing the challenge of minority rule in Israel will require a change of political leadership – and of political consciousness.


For the current political leadership, dealing with minority rule is literally unimaginable. Benjamin Netanyahu has built his political career on seeking to frighten Israelis with terrifying “others” – the Palestinians, radical Islam, Iran, whichever bogeyman came to hand – and then posing as their savior. Too many have believed that pose, too credulously. The ultra-nationalists that Netanyahu courted are now in danger of usurping him, dragging the country even further to the right.


To move from that view, of an Israel surrounded by dangers, to one where Israel begins to deal with its obligations under international law, requires a political leap – which means, realistically, a political change. Somehow a new conversation has to emerge within Israeli politics.


And to truly address the challenges of minority rule will require a change of political consciousness. Israelis are still brought up to see Palestinian history as something dangerous and subversive, rather than recognizing their joint links to the land. By only seeing the history of that contested region in terms of “claims,” one of which must triumph, Israelis and Palestinians have locked themselves into an endless logic of war.


A better approach would focus less on demography and more on justice; less on one ethnic group dominating and more on creating a state or states for all the groups that call the region home. Arabs and Jews, after all, are not the only people who live between the river and the sea, nor the only ones with historical ties to the land.

Israel’s Jewish majority moment has passed. It may take months or years for the country’s politicians to catch up. But they, or a new generation, will have to do so. Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians need a new vision, based not on dreams from the past, but grounded in the hard numbers of the present.


Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.