The Math of Democracy; the Miscalculation of Occupation

How many Palestinians live in the West Bank, and does it matter?

On Thursday, right-wing think-tanker and publicist Yoram Ettinger will lecture (in Hebrew) at Bar-Ilan University and will make a might effort to prove that there a lot fewer Palestinians than the Palestinian Authority claims, and that this matters tremendously. Or so I judge from the title of his talk (“Palestinian Demography: Myth or Fact”) and from articles he has written and a major study in which he collaborated. Unless Ettinger has decided to recant, in fact, you can learn what he has to say on the subject online, without shlepping to Ramat Gan. I’m agnostic about Ettinger’s numbers. But I’m sure he flunks the mathematics of democracy.

The study, published two years ago, claims that the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics inflated its census results in 1997 and then overestimated population growth afterward.

This was no abstract exercise in census mechanics. The point was to debunk mainstream reports, beginning in 2003, that the Palestinian population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan was reaching parity with the Jewish population. Given the higher Palestinian birthrate, this meant that Palestinians were on the verge of becoming a majority. The mainstream numbers, based on Israeli and Palestinian official numbers, intensified discussion in Israel on the need to give up occupied territory. (Here’s an explanation I wrote in 2003.) They apparently led to Ehud Olmert’s decision in late 2003 to give up his lifelong political commitment to the Whole Land of Israel and work for a partial withdrawal, starting with Gaza. Ettinger et al sought to show there was a strong Jewish majority in the territory under Israeli rule. The implication was we could stay put.

Recently, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics published the results of its 2007 census, showing that the population of Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) is about 3.8 million – about what the bureau had expected. Ettinger attacked again (in Hebrew, in Ynet), arguing that the PCBS inflated its figures by 50%. Leave out Gaza, he said, and there is a 67% Jewish majority between the river and the sea. So all’s well, the classic “demographic argument” for withdrawal is false, and we can happily continue with the occupation.

In 2003, Israel’s premier demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University told me that the PCBS was professional and fairly reliable. I trust DellaPergola over Ettinger, who obviously wants the numbers to fit his ideology. But I’ll leave it to members of the guild to argue the statistics.

Contrary to his intention, what Ettinger really does is to remind us that the critical questions for Israeli democracy are not whether there is parity or a Palestinian majority. To disenfranchise a minority also contradicts the basic principles of democracy. This would be true even if the minority were only five percent of the total population.

At the end of the Six-Day War, Israel had 2.7 million citizens (Jews and Arabs) ruling over 1.1 million people in occupied territory – people subject to Israeli decisions but unable to influence those decisions. That is, about 28 percent of the population under Israeli rule was disenfranchised. As a short-term military occupation this was an unfortunate arrangement but one accepted in international law. Once the arrangement became open-ended, presumably permanent, it also became essentially undemocratic, even if there’d been no further change in the ratio of Jews and Palestinians.

For argument’s sake, let’s accept Ettinger’s numbers, and his strange exclusion of Gaza – where Israel continues to exercise many of the prerogatives of the sovereign. Can Israel be a democracy if one-third the people under its rule do not vote and do not have the other rights of citizens?

On the other hand, if Israel today annexed the West Bank and granted the Palestinians citizenship, it would be democratic but dysfunctional. Imagine a parliament – following Ettinger’s math – with 80 Jewish and 40 Palestinian members. One reason that Israeli coalitions are so unstable today is that the ruling party seeks a majority of 61 while not including the Arab parties. To do so after annexation would require getting more than three-fourths of the Jewish Knesset members into a coalition, and keep them there. To see how stable this would be, look at the Italian historical example of trying to create coalitions without the communists. Goverments fall twice daily.

The alternative, of course, would be coalitions of Jewish and Palestinian parties. For how well that would work, check the Belgian example of binational coalitions.

For that matter, assume that the PCBS figures are correct, and that the Palestinian population is growing faster than the Jewish one. Some Palestinians, understandably despairing of peace negotiations for a two-state solution, are returning to the idea of a single state, in which they think they could rule. But imagine trying to form an all-Palestinian coalition in a parliament that is 48 percent Jewish – or, again, a Belgian-style attempt at binational government.

No matter how you count the heads, Mr. Ettinger, it doesn’t add up to a working democracy worthy of the name.