Jewish Israelis no longer risk being the minority as the fertility rate among Palestinians and Israelis in Israel is now equal at 3.1 births per woman. Will changing demographics shift the political outlook?

Image by Rusty Stewart: "A Jewish family watch the sun set over the West Bank from their Settlement."

For decades, the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict have been shaped by simple demographics. “The womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon,” Yasser Arafat, the late founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization, liked to boast. According to “The Recent Rise in Palestinian Fertility” by Marwan Khawaja, fertility in the Gaza Strip, during the Intifada period of the early 1990’s, reached an unusually high level of 8.3 births per woman, nearly three times the fertility rate of Israeli Jews. There are about 6.5 million Israeli Jews and slightly fewer Palestinians (6.41 million) in Israel and the occupied territories. But the higher fertility rate among Palestinian women seemed to guarantee a future Palestinian majority. The seeming inevitability of an Arab majority was the foundation of the peace process and the two-state solution in which Israel would return most of the land seized during the 1967 “Six-Day War in return for peace. If Israel did not do so, they argued, Jews would become a minority in their own state, threatening either the Jewish character of their state or the state of their democracy.

But quietly something has happened: the birth rate among Arab Israelis has gone down markedly and fertility among Jewish Israelis has gone up so that they both now average 3.1 births per woman. The birth rate among Palestinians in the occupied territories is higher—4.1 births per woman—but has fallen dramatically from the 5.9 births level of less than 20 years ago and nearly half the level of the Gaza boom of the early 1990’s.

What has happened to bring about this change? And what does it mean for the future of one of the world’s most contested regions?

While there has been an increase in the number of Palestinians, currently estimated at 12.70 million globally, socioeconomic trends are playing a role in the fertility change.

“I would say it is a slow decline. The main reason for the decline is marriage related, as contraceptive prevalence has not changed much actually,” Khawaja, a demographer and social statistician for the United Nations and co-founder of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, told me. “More and more women are not getting married owing to the economic situation,” she added.

Childbearing in high fertility settings is seen as a significant contributor to the physical or political strength of social groups, especially for populations that see themselves as being under threat. Although Arab birth rates are declining in Israel, Gaza, and the occupied territories, the decline is actually in line with modernizing societies around the world that are seeing improved standards of living and smaller families, thanks to better healthcare outcomes. Compared to other countries in the Middle East, the Palestinian birth rate is one of the highest, and it is also the highest for countries with comparable economic standing.

“If the birth rate among Palestinians is dropping, that creates a better opportunity for creating a modern Western economy and sustaining it,” Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist who has written on demographic trends and author of “The Unmaking of Israel,” told me. He associates the lower birth rate to a modern or post-industrial economy: “A Palestine in which a birth rate is lower is a Palestine which is in a better position than Egypt and that’s a good thing.”

Aside from socioeconomic consequences, demographics are a major political issue for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within Israel and the fear of being outnumbered by an Arab majority is used by right-wing Israelis who fear Israel will lose its Jewish identity. Many on both sides cite demographic trends as justification for a two-state solution. However, there is a minority opinion of far-right Jews or “demography deniers” who have long called for a one-state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, often coming up with demographic numbers to prove there are fewer Palestinians in the occupied territories than people claim.

Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Yoram Ettinger, who is a consultant to members of Israel’s Cabinet and Knesset, is a prominent demography denier. His claims are exaggerated and ideologically motivated, according to Haifa University geography professor Arnon Soffer in an interview with The Times of Israel. Soffer mentioned in the interview that, “[Ettinger] and his team invent things to enable the annexation of the territories. It is undignified to even debate these jokers, who include no demographers and all belong to the extreme right.”

The demography battle is being waged by the political left as well. “On the left side of Israeli politics, their argument for a two-state outcome in its simplest form is that Israel can’t remain both a democracy and a Jewish national state while keeping the occupied territories,” Gorenberg told me.

According to Former Israeli minister and the architect of the Oslo Accords, Yossi Beilin, conventional wisdom about the demographics of Arabs and Jews is that if there is a similar number of Jews and Palestinians, they can choose to live together in one state or two. If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, but it cannot be both . He is a proponent of the two-state solution because he wants to live in a Jewish, democratic state and favors the establishment of a Palestinian state. He told me that, “The problem isn’t exact numbers. The situation is already problematic enough for those who believe that Israel should always be a Jewish state…This is why we must have a border on the west side of the Jordan River as soon as possible.”

A public opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in August showed that fewer than half of Israeli Jews, 47%, support the two-state solution. Among Palestinians, support for the two-state is also slim—around 52%.

I spoke to Diana Buttu, a former adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas, who favors a one-state solution—a sentiment echoed by President Abbas at the UN General Assembly last year. “What I always try to get people to realize is that it already is apartheid,” Buttu told me. “It doesn’t matter if we’re 50% plus one person or if we’re 51% or 49%. It’s already a system of apartheid.” Buttu, an Israeli citizen who was a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, favors a one-state solution because she recognizes that you cannot create two states without inflicting injustice, particularly on the Palestinians.

“I don’t believe in the concept of a Jewish state in any framework because I don’t believe in giving preference to one group of people over another, particularly when that one group is a beneficiary of colonialism rather than people who suffered at the hands of colonialism,” Buttu told me. She favors the idea of one person, one vote, living as equals without an idea of superiority.

But what would one democratic state look like? If you have proportional representation, which Israel has now and which demographers on both sides claim is more or less at parity, you would have to elect a new parliament that is 50% Palestinian and 50% Jewish. But, how do you work out longstanding issues such as holy sites, Palestinian refugees, and economic imbalances inside such a legal framework?

Gorenberg conveyed to me that, “With a parliamentary legal system that is evenly split between two communities which have very strong national identities, that’s a recipe in the very best case for political paralysis.” Since it is two, highly mobilized national communities fighting for self-determination, “you’re not going to get some sort of homogenous reality.”

Can these two groups accept living together? Regional examples of binational states like Syria and Lebanon offer no hope. Group identity and group solidarity is important to both groups; therefore, making them live within a single state is a fraught enterprise. The Kurds in Iraq do not consider autonomy within an Iraqi state to be self-determination. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at a stalemate, hardliners in Israeli politics will continue to use demographics, including birth rates and population figures, to maintain the status quo of remaining both an occupying force and having a dominant Jewish identity within the state of Israel. Changing demographics have shifted the political discourse. However, numbers are just a piece to solving the Israel-Palestine puzzle and not the sole determinant for what the roadmap of peace looks like.

Living together in one state would not only be a major legal and political challenge, but would also require a huge psychological shift for both populations. The psychological dimensions of the conflict, including mutual mistrust and apprehension, has roots in the historical experiences of both sides, according to Alon Ben-Meir, a Middle East analyst and professor at New York University. In an article for The Huffington Post, Ben-Meir wrote about the traumatic pasts of Israelis and Palestinians, including the Holocaust for Jews and the Nakba for Palestinians when about 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven out from their homes as a result of the 1948 war at the onset of the Jewish state.

Ben-Meir also points out in the Huffington Post article that the differences in political ideology and religious convictions between the two sides leads to efforts to delegitimize each other. He noted that, “Although many people on both sides realize that coexistence is inevitable, there are still very strong voices among the Israelis and the Palestinians who simply don’t accept it. There are Israelis who deny that the Palestinians are a nation with national aspirations, and there are Palestinians who deny that Israelis constitute a people worthy of a nation.” 

Beyond negotiations between political leaders for a two-state agreement, there needs to be a separate track of engagement between religious leaders, historians and NGOs “about each of the conflicting issues between Israelis and Palestinians without outside political pressure as long as all participants believe in the inevitability of coexistence,” according to Ben-Meir.

If it is so challenging for a two-state solution, one may ask whether one-state is a panacea. Only time will tell.

Noorulain Khawaja was a journalist with Al Jazeera English News Channel for seven years. She worked on stories involving U.S. politics and also covered the United Nations General Assembly. After Al Jazeera, Noorulain moved to Nairobi, Kenya to pursue an independent route as a reporter for aKoma Media, a digital storytelling platform focused on Africa. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Politics and Global Affairs from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.