Monday, June 6, 2011

Same Netanyahu, Different Israel: Demographic Challenges to Peace

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have had an uneasy relationship. When Obama announced that he supported a peace agreement based on the 1967 boundaries with negotiated variations, Netanyahu vehemently objected and claimed that Israel could never consider itself safe in that configuration. Their last meeting could properly be referred to as a confrontation.

The truth is that Obama’s stance is no different than that the U.S. has always taken in suggesting the starting point for negotiations. In fact, it has been said that the Israelis have agreed to this approach in the past. So what has changed?

Daniel Levy says a lot has changed. He has produced an article for Foreign Affairs that argues that both Netenyahu and Obama may be driven by viewpoints that have been overcome by events. The article is titled: Same Netanyahu, Different Israel: The Demographic Challenges to Peace.

Netanyahu addressed Congress on his recent visit. He also addressed Congress in 1996 during his first term as Prime Minister. Levy uses those two occurrences, and the fifteen year interval, to pinpoint critical changes that have occurred in Israel since 1996.

The demographic changes have been significant.

“In 1996, Israel's population was 5.7 million people; today, that number is 7.75 million. The two fastest-growing population groups are the Palestinian Arab community and ultra-Orthodox Jews (known as the Haredi). Today, there are 1.59 million Palestinian Arabs in Israel, compared to 1.03 million in 1996.”

“More dramatically, the Haredi population has grown more than threefold over only 20 years, from 3 percent of the population in 1990 to over 10 percent today. Estimates suggest that by 2028, Haredim will represent a quarter of all children in Israel under 14 years old and roughly a third of Jewish children that age.”

The growth in numbers and influence in government, society and the Israel Defense Forces of those who are, in effect, religious fundamentalists is a profound and troubling change.

Politically, the effect has been to push Israel further to the right on all issues. Levy fears that Israel’s claim to be a democracy will be increasingly hard to justify. Fifty years of being an occupying power is not conducive to maintaining solid democratic tendencies. Levy also points out that a large fraction of recent immigrants come from the former Soviet Union (making up 20% of the entire population), and they did not bring a culture of democracy with them. The result has been

“....a slew of anti-democratic and at times unashamedly racist legislative initiatives targeting the Palestinian-Arab community. This political trend has found great resonance in the Israeli public: according to a 2010 survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, 86 percent of the Jewish public believe that decisions critical to the state should be taken only by a Jewish majority; 53 percent support the government's right to encourage Arabs to emigrate from Israel; and 55 percent say that greater resources should be allocated to Jewish communities than to Arab ones.”

Society has also had to change in order to accommodate the rising numbers of ultra-orthodox.

“One notable phenomenon in the past decade and a half has been the rapid expansion of the state-funded but independent education system established by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Shas is often a pivotal, if not decisive, player in Israel's governing coalitions, which over the years has given it the power to direct state resources toward the Shas-run school system....Over the past 20 years, the number of Jewish primary school students enrolled at ultra-Orthodox schools has grown from just over seven percent to more than 28 percent.”

“This trend has great implications for Israeli society and its economy: the Shas system and other ultra-Orthodox schools teach a narrowly religious curriculum that is less geared to providing pupils the skills necessary to compete in a modern economy. A combination of state policies and cultural norms has meant that both the Haredi and Palestinian-Arab communities have low rates of labor-force participation: for example, only 40 percent of Haredi men and 19 percent of Palestinian-Arab women work. To further compound the strain on Israel's economy, Haredi men often spend a lifetime in state-subsidized religious education centers, or yeshivot. A 2009 report by the Metzilah Center, a think tank in Jerusalem, concluded that without a strong state effort to economically and socially integrate these populations, the ‘rapid growth of two economically weak population groups ... Haredim and Muslims ... may deal a blow to Israel's future as a developed and prosperous state’."

Any path to peace must deal with the settlements issue, and it must have the support of the military. Once again, the trends are troubling.

“....the population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank alone has more than doubled, from 142,000 in 1996 to over 300,000 today. The settler population in East Jerusalem, meanwhile, has grown from 160,000 to over 200,000 in the same period....The demographic makeup of the settlements themselves has also changed. Whereas settlements catering to the ultra-Orthodox population barely existed when Netanyahu first became prime minister, the two fastest-growing settlements today -- Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit -- are both ultra-Orthodox. (Their combined population is 80,000 today, compared to 10,000 in 1996.) It is worth noting that the average age in Modiin Illit is ten years old, the lowest of any Israeli city. Clearly, the political influence of the ultra-Orthodox settlers will only grow in the coming decades.”

Legislation has made it easy for conservative (not ultra-orthodox) religious groups to maintain their military and religious commitments. As a result the influence and numbers of such religious-oriented members has grown. Levy found one source who estimated that up to 30% of IDF officers are of a religious bent. If a negotiated settlement calls for some of the ultra-orthodox to be removed from their homes it could get ugly. Gershom Gorenberg has written an article in The American Prospect that suggests the Israeli commanders fear that significant numbers their troops would side with the settlers. The religious leaders believe the land the settlements reside on was given to them by God. They teach that it would be a sin to remove an Israeli from it.

Levy suggests that Obama should recognize the changes that have occurred in Israel and produce a policy and an approach that takes them into consideration. Such a general statement is usually followed by a suggested approach that might prove useful. Levy forgot to include any suggested approaches.

I sympathize with Levy. Given this picture, I cannot think of a way forward. When you have two contending groups, and both think that God is on their side—it just never ends well.

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