Commentary Magazine


The Real Demographic Threat

As Israel celebrates its 62nd Independence Day this evening, is the country actually independent? Judging by the remarks of some of its leading politicians, one would have to conclude that the answer is no.

Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony yesterday, for instance, Defense Minister and Labor-party chairman Ehud Barak declared that only by signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians could Israel preserve its Jewish majority. Ehud Olmert made this claim even more bluntly in 2007, when he was prime minister, declaring that if “the two-state solution collapses … the State of Israel is finished.” Olmert’s successor as head of the Kadima party, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, has made similar remarks.

In other words, Israel has no control over its own fate; its continued existence depends entirely on the goodwill of a nation that would like nothing better than to see it disappear. Moreover, all the Palestinians have to do to secure this outcome is to continue doing exactly what they have done for the past 17 years: say “no” to every peace offer Israel makes. If that is true, Israel really is finished.

In reality, of course, the Barak-Olmert-Livni conclusion is ridiculous even if one believes the demographic doomsayers (there are grounds for skepticism, but that’s another story). Should Israel someday decide the status quo is untenable, it doesn’t need a peace agreement to leave; it can always quit the West Bank unilaterally, just as it did Gaza. After decades of condemning Israel’s “illegal occupation” and demanding its end, the world could hardly object if Israel complied.

Unfortunately, “ridiculous” is not the same as “harmless.” This credo is actually deadly dangerous, on at least four levels.

First, it encourages Palestinian intransigence: if Palestinians can destroy the Jewish state just by saying no, they have no incentive to ever say yes.

Second, it could lead Israeli leaders to make concessions that truly do endanger the state’s survival.

Third, it encourages world leaders to pressure Israel into such concessions, by enabling them to claim they’re really doing it for Israel’s own good. After all, if Israel’s own leaders say the state can’t survive without a peace deal, isn’t any concession that might appease the Palestinians, however dangerous, better than the alternative of certain death?

Finally, it demoralizes Israel’s own citizens, most of whom know perfectly well that no peace agreement is attainable in the foreseeable future. If Israel’s continued existence really depends on an unachievable peace, then Israelis have no reason to remain here and no reason to continue sending their sons to fight and die in the state’s defense. And should enough Israelis reach that conclusion, the state really will collapse.

Thus if Israel is to survive another 62 years, it desperately needs its leaders to relearn the wisdom that guided its founders in 1948, when the demographic situation was much worse: that the purpose of independence is precisely to enable the Jewish people to shape Israel’s fate, rather than being the helpless hostages of a hostile nation. The “demographic threat” cannot destroy Israel. But its leaders’ own folly can.