Israel’s Internal Demographics Disaster – Neri Zilber/The National Interest
“Ten years go by in the blink of an eye,” said Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently, in his sustained offensive against the Iranian nuclear deal. The implication of the statement is that the agreement reached in Vienna allows Iran two options in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon: either cheating during the lifetime of the agreement, or, conversely, keeping the deal for the duration—a decade, perhaps more or less, depending on one’s interpretation—and only then breaking out to a weapons capability. The agreement doesn’t go far enough, Netanyahu wants the world to know, both in its constraints and length. As Netanyahu stated initially in his address to Congress last March, “a decade may seem like a long time in political life, but it’s the blink of an eye in the life of a nation. It’s a blink of an eye in the life of our children.” Without wading into the merits of the Iran nuclear deal itself, it is worth asking what kind of place Israel will be in ten to fifteen years, when the proverbial sun begins to set on the Iran nuclear agreement (a query given added immediacy after the deadly attacks late last week at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem and a Palestinian village in the West Bank).
In early June, at Israel’s prestigious Herzliya Conference, President Reuven Rivlin used his address to try to answer the above question. Foregoing any discussion of Iran, as well as mention of the external Palestinian demographic threat (or indeed, the word “Palestinian”) to Israel’s future as both a Jewish and democratic state, Rivlin instead chose to highlight Israel’s changing internal demographics in a landmark speech titled: “The New Israeli Order.”
As recently as the 1990s, Rivlin observed, Israeli society was built on a clear and solid mainstream Zionist majority, with three small minorities alongside it: Arabs (i.e. Palestinian citizens of Israel proper), ultra-Orthodox (Haredis) and religious-nationalists (i.e. the settlers). Now, Rivlin explained using pie charts projected on a massive screen, “the demographic processes that are restructuring or redesigning the shape of Israeli society have, in fact, created a ‘new Israeli order’…in which there is no longer a clear majority, nor clear minority groups.” In 1990, 52 percent of elementary school children in Israel belonged to the state school system—what is referred to as “mamlachti” education, a Hebrew term that combines a sense of mainstream Zionism and the primacy of the state. With their separate school systems, Arabs back then made up 23 percent of elementary-school children; Haredis, 9 percent; and religious-nationalists, 16 percent.
Using projections for 2018, Rivlin said, the proportion of first graders in the mamlachti state school system will drop to just 38 percent. Haredis will increase their numbers to 28 percent, Arabs to 25 percent, and religious-nationalists will hold almost steady at 15 percent (a strange statistic likely having to do with this clearly growing segment of the population often choosing to send their children to either the state school system or ultra-Orthodox institutions).
“The New Israeli Order is not an apocalyptic prophecy,” Rivlin declared. “It is the reality.”
How would Israel continue to be a developed economy, Rivlin queried, with half the future workforce—Arabs and Haredis—severely underrepresented? The current situation was just not sustainable, Rivlin warned: “the mathematics is simple; any child can see it.” In the past, Rivlin said, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) was the “main tool for crafting Israeliness,” where disparate segments of the population would come together and learn about each other. And yet, in the “new Israeli order,” close to half of the population would not serve in the army since Arabs and Haredis seldom even identify as Zionist.
Politicians issuing a cri de coeur against a decreasing share of the Israeli population working, paying taxes and serving in the army—thereby supporting (and defending) the rest—did not start with Rivlin’s speech. Yair Lapid, the former finance minister, built his nascent political career in recent years on just such a platform.
“You’re all parents,” I heard him tell Tel Aviv high-schoolers on the campaign trail in early 2013. “Each one of you has a child in [the ultra-Orthodox city of] Bnei Brak that you’re supporting.” This state of affairs, Lapid said, speaking for much of secular middle Israel, was not only unfair, but economically and socially untenable. “I’m afraid for my own children,” he said then. “I’m afraid that they’ll look at Miami or New York or London or Amsterdam” as realistic destinations for emigration.
The difference between Rivlin’s speech and Lapid’s speech is the difference between Israel’s last two general elections. In 2013, Lapid swept into government and successfully pushed through major legislation reducing government subsidies doled out to the Haredis, in addition to new laws eliminating the traditional ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service. In the most recent election this past March, the ultra-Orthodox parties were returned to power by Prime Minister Netanyahu (he needed them for his new governing coalition). Their price? A reinstatement of those same subsidies, and a softening of the penalties for Haredi draft dodgers. Serious change will, apparently, have to wait. The question is whether Israel can afford to, given the shifting demographic realities outlined above.
The dirty secret of the last election is that the Israeli Right, broadly defined, won convincingly—but it could have done better. Right-wing parties, including the ultra-Orthodox and the more centrist party of new Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, took 67 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats. This compares to the Israeli Left’s poor 53 seat showing, down from an almost-even Right-Left split in 2013 (61-59).
And yet, in the last election, one far-right party, the extremist Yachad, was a mere five thousand votes from passing the electoral threshold into the Knesset and securing another few seats. Reports indicated that a rebellious rabbi from Jerusalem ordered his followers to boycott the vote—likely costing the ultra-Orthodox parties another seat or two. The Israeli Left had an unpopular sitting prime minister to run against, increased turnout (especially in the Arab community) and a highly conducive media climate clamoring for Netanyahu’s head—and it still couldn’t muster more than 53 total votes.
Political demographics inside Israel, therefore, need to be looked at for explanations. As Rivlin put it in his speech, the very “‘ownership structure’ over Israeli society and the State of Israel is changing right before our eyes.” While Rivlin emphasized economic, social and cultural challenges—and called for a new ethos of “partnership” between the four minority “tribes” of Israel—the real challenge may well be political.
It is now an open question whether the Israeli political system can still create outcomes and coalitions that will be able to tackle, and solve, the many existential challenges facing the country. Rivlin, as mentioned, chose to ignore the millions of Palestinians still living under Israeli control in the West Bank, as well as the Iranian nuclear question, focusing solely on Israel’s internal demographics. Yet the agenda that he laid forth has to serve as a wake-up call. “Anyone who isn’t ready to ask these questions today,” he said, “is no longer a Zionist or nationalist—but rather is ignoring the most significant challenge laying before the Zionist project today.”
The new Israeli government, dominated as it is by ultra-Orthodox and pro-settlers elements, doesn’t offer much hope for real structural change. But based on Israel’s demographic trend lines, the future might not be any brighter.
In just over a decade, when Netanyahu believes Iran could race to a bomb, all of those Israeli elementary schoolers will be budding adults—and voters. Will a system have already been instituted to integrate Haredis and Arabs into the army, the workforce and Israeli society? And if not, will parts of the secular middle class—the natural constituency for a more pluralistic polity (and the peace process)—have, as Lapid warned, begun decamping for a New York, an Amsterdam or a London? And what of the settler population in the West Bank, which stood at 120,000 in 1993, but has now grown to 350,000 (not including East Jerusalem), with a growth rate double that of the Jewish-Israeli national average?
Finally, and perhaps most alarmingly, in the absence of a credible political horizon for a two-state solution, how will Palestinian society—40 percent of which is currently under the age of fourteen—respond to a stalemated status quo?
In other words, demographics inside Israeli and Palestinian societies, and not between them, will likely prove decisive—regardless of what Iran decides to do. A few years ago, while reporting a story in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, I strolled through the streets with my host, a charming local official. “You see all the children,” he said smiling, in response to a question I hadn’t asked. “That’s demographics. We’re winning, with our dicks.” He was decidedly not referring to the Palestinians, nor to the far-away Iranians. He had his sights firmly on his own country, and what the future inexorably brings with it, in the blink of an eye.
Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture. He was, most recently, a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.