February 10, 2009

Israel's Choice

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On Tuesday, Israeli voters go to the polls. In the face of difficult times they are forced to make difficult choices. On one hand, you have the cynical ruling coalition led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for centrist Kadima and Defense Minister Ehud Barak for Labor. With shrewd politicking that would make Karl Rove proud, the coalition government invaded Gaza in order to boost its own polling numbers at a high cost to Palestinian life. In addition, the war had the counterproductive result of giving Hamas, who had been slumping in popularity among Palestinians, a second life. Though Kadima and Labor were able to boost their numbers for awhile, it seems that the Gaza intervention has made winners out of the right.
The big surprise is not so much that Likud, led by former Primer Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is leading in the polls, it is the rise of the Israeli far-right (what some would call fascist) under Avigdor Lieberman and the Israel Beiteinu party. Lieberman favors relocation and the stripping of citizenship from Israel Arab citizens who refuse to sign a loyalty oath. He would also exchange land inhabited mostly by Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for settlement areas. He is obviously hawkish on other security issues. It is interesting that Lieberman’s message is appealing to younger demographics that traditionally supported Labor. His appeal speaks to the failures of the peace process and the general weariness of the Israeli population.
Lieberman’s popularity is a reflection of another reality for Israel, that of demographics. Israeli Arabs make up 15-20% of Israel’s population, with birthrates far exceeding those of the Jewish population. In a fascinating 2005 article, The Atlantic showcases the issue of demographics in the article, “Will Israel Live to Be 100?” The article predicts that by 2050 they will make up 30% of the country’s population. This is excluding Palestinian Arabs, who like their Israeli Arab neighbors have some of the highest population growth rates in the world. Gaza’s population, the article states, doubles every generation. And this is excluding entirely the Palestinian refugees in the neighboring countries. In this context, Lieberman’s policies of strict separation could be seen as a desperate attempt at saving two of the founding principles of Israel: democratic governance and the Jewish nature of the state. As things stand now, at some point in the future Jews will cease to be a majority of the population, or Arab citizens will become such a sizeable minority that a choice will have to be made. Will Israel be a Jewish or democratic state? Even with the separation proposed by Lieberman, the security of these founding principles is not assured.
Competition over the scarce resources of the region can only get more intense, which makes a settlement of the conflict more important than ever. And the basis of the conflict can only be a peace with dignity, not peace at the barrel of a gun. I dare go so far as to say that given the demographic trends, preserving the state of Israel depends very much on the ability of the creation of a just settlement. As Faisal Husseini, a PLO official, once said, “I worry about today. But the Israelis should worry about the future.”
I hope that Israeli voters remember that there is a clock ticking, and that there is no way around making difficult choices.