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Sam Smith: The Hidden Issue On The Middle East


The Hidden Issue On The Middle East

By Editor Sam Smith

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW, 2002 - Peace in the Middle East depends in no small part upon the parties dealing with an issue that is barely discussed: the demographics of Israel and Palestine. It is not the violent suicide rate among Palestinians that threatens Israel; it is the peaceful birthrate of Arabs within its own borders and the possibility that, as a result, Israel may some day cease being a Jewish state.

Eugene McCarthy once said that 80% of all the world's diplomatic problems were the result of British mapmakers. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East. If there is a solution to the current crisis it lies in replacing history, old grudges, and outdated maps with a mutually satisfactory answer to the question: what arrangements and boundaries will work best in the future for both parties - individually and together?

While the media talks endlessly of issues as the right of return and the settlements, legalistic arguments over past agreements and divides won't help much; considering the current habitat and future needs of the parties can.

To answer the question one must engage in the sort of lateral thinking that politicians and the media find so difficult but out of which true solutions often come. One approach was used by the Swiss to establish a new and controversial canton. Andre Liebrich described it this way:

"Switzerland's youngest canton, Jura, was created in 1978 to separate two linguistic groups . . . After decades of tension between the canton of Bern's germanophone majority and a francophone minority in its Jura districts, the issue was decided by referendum. In this case, however, there was not one referendum but half a dozen spread over a decade: first, the Bernese voted on whether there should be a referendum; then the Jurasians voted to create a new canton; then the Jurasians voted again (several times) to establish the borders of this canton; then the Swiss voted to confirm the entry of a new canton into the Confederation."

This is merely illustrative, but it suggests the tools available if one is willing to a look at the problem afresh as any real solution will require.

In the Jerusalem Post last year, David Rudge elaborated on the problem:

"Israel's future as the Jewish State is under threat from the ongoing population boom among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, according to a demographic working paper written by the University of Haifa's Prof. Arnon Soffer . . .

"His sobering assessments of population growth and economic trends and his recommendations for solving the situation have already drawn fire from certain quarters. Soffer, however, who heads the Geo-Strategy Chair at the center and is a senior lecturer in the university's Geography Department, is adamant that there is only one feasible solution: separation between Israel and the Palestinians. 'We are at a crossroads where the situation, if it continues, will deteriorate on the demographic and socio-economic fronts which will be like a time bomb just waiting to explode,' he said. . .

"According to Soffer, there is already a demographic balance in terms of the number of Jews and non-Jews in the region from the Jordan River to the coast and running the length of Israel from North to South. 'Today, there are five million Jews and five million non-Jews. The latter figure is composed of 4.5 million Arabs and the remainder non-Jewish immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union, and foreign workers,' he said. . .

"'I cannot understand why the government, the Knesset, and the military seem to find it so difficult to absorb these figures and why some people still insist on saying that time favors the Jews,' he said. 'This is simply not true. On the contrary, the trends and indicators all point to an economic and ecological catastrophe waiting to happen, and of the death knell of the ideological dream of a Jewish State.'

This is not some abstract and distant problem. Just recently the candidates for mayor in the city of Lod ran in an election in a constituency which was 27% Arab - up from 20% only four years ago.

But neither is it an insolvable problem. Those who think the Middle East is hopeless forget that it wasn't too long ago it was unthinkable that we might be trading partners with the Germans and the Japanese, going as tourists to Vietnam, or welcoming Russia into NATO. Things do change.

It could happen in the Middle East as well and thinking anew about where lines are drawn would not be a bad place to start - changing the debate from past wrongs to future possibilities.

---- ENDS ----

March 28, 2005
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