Israel's Dreaded Tipping Point Has Finally Arrived

The country can either be a Jewish democracy or possess all of its historical territory. It can't have both.

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An Israeli holds up a national flag atop a building in Jerusalem's Old City during a parade marking Jerusalem Day, on May 20, 2012. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

As President Obama prepares to visit Israel later this month, reports from administration officials indicate that he does not intend to focus on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather to discuss regional threats such as Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the continuing violence in Syria. But Obama should realize that Israel's continued presence in the West Bank is an existential threat to its continuity as a democratic, Jewish state -- and time is not on Israel's side.

The urgency of this issue was illustrated by Sergio DellaPergola, a Hebrew University professor and an expert on Israeli population studies, in a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington last month. The statistics DellaPergola assembled are clear and their implications are frightening. Right now, the total number of Jews and Arabs living under Israeli rule in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza is just under 12 million people. At the moment, a shade under 50 percent of the population is Jewish. In other words, right now -- not in five or ten years, but right now -- only 50 percent of the people living in the Jewish state and in the areas under its control are Jews. The dreaded tipping point -- which advocates of the two-solution have been warning about for years -- has finally arrived.

Some argue that this ratio is irrelevant, that Israel's current demographic balance should not be a source of concern, since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The international community doesn't buy this argument, though, since they still see Gaza as occupied since Israel controls its airspace and sea space.

But taking Gaza out of the equation does not buy Israel much time, anyway. According to DellaPergola, if Israel continues to maintain control of the West Bank alone (without Gaza), as many members of the current government seem to favor, and if current fertility rates among Jews and Arabs continue, then by 2030, Jews will constitute only 54 percent of the population. By May 2048, when the State of Israel turns 100 years old, the population of this area will be approximately 55 percent Arab and 45 percent Jewish.

On the final slide of DellaPergola's presentation, he notes three possibilities for the Jewish state: that it be a Jewish state, that it be a democracy, and that it possess all of its historical territory. Israel cannot have all three.

The Jews are not the only people who want and feel entitled to a homeland within the historical territory of Israel. The Palestinians in the West Bank -- who currently outnumber the Jews there, 2.2 million to 320,000 -- know, and the world knows, that this is the only place where they can set up their homeland of Palestine.

If Israel ignores the demand to establish the Palestinian state there, then, in addition to incurring tremendous hostility from the rest of the world for doing so, it will eventually have to find a way to incorporate the stateless Arabs of the West Bank into Israel. What then? Either Israel will stop being a Jewish state, or it will choose to deny the Arabs of the West Bank the most basic of civil rights, such as the right to vote, and stop being a democracy.

If Israel wants to remain a Jewish state and a democracy and is willing to help bring about the creation of a state in the West Bank, its future -- particularly given its wildly productive and expanding economy -- is very bright indeed. But, if Israel insists on holding on to all the historical territory spoken of in the Bible, then its future becomes grim.

The Palestinians seem ready to address Israel's security concerns. Abu Mazen, the head of the Palestinian Authority, has made it clear that, within the context of an overall settlement, the Palestinian state will be non-militarized: no army, no airforce and no military weapons; just an internal police force. Given the past history of Palestinian-Israeli relations, the willingness of the Palestinian Authority to accept this condition is not insignificant.

Israel is about to turn 65, and the question that confronts it is as old as the 2,000-year-old question posed by Hillel in the Talmud: If not now, when? In just a few more years, it will be too late.