BY PADRAIG O’MALLEY
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has only a razor-thin majority in one of the most right-wing Knessets in Israeli history.
President Barack Obama has tossed the ball to his successor. Recently, accounts have emerged of the U.S. administration giving up on there ever being two states and beginning to focus on what a one-state solution looks like.
And then there’s the ongoing violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank that has been called “a leaderless intifada.” This violence has cemented additional layers of distrust of Palestinians to the ones Jewish Israelis already harbor. The hatred is calcifying.
During the five years I spent researching the conflict in Israel and Palestine for my recent book, The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine, it became increasingly clear that while talks over the past 25 years have focused on borders, settlements, Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees, demographic changes may have made the idea of a two-state solution obsolete even before such a solution could be worked out.
Much is made of the fact that within a few years there will be more Palestinians than Jews “between the River and the Sea.” Without a Palestinian state, Israel will either have to give the right to vote to Palestinians or become an apartheid state like South Africa once was.
As I report in my book, other demographic changes that have received little attention but may be of far more consequence are taking place within Israel’s Jewish population.
The birth rates of Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, and of Palestinian-Israelis exceed those of Orthodox and secular Jews.
This is creating some fundamental structural changes in Israel. Between 25 percent and 33 percent of Israeli schoolchildren now attend religious Haredim schools. These are schools where no math or science is taught. They graduate pupils with few of the skills necessary to live in the modern world.
The Bank of Israel concludes that unless the Haredim receive more higher education, Israel will fall from 16th to 26th among 34 member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Twenty years ago, 60 percent of Jewish Israeli children attended secular schools. Today, that number is 40 percent, and the trend shows no sign of leveling off.
With more religious education, it’s perhaps not surprising that Israel’s best demographers foresee an increasingly religious Israel. The Haredim will account for 20 percent of the population by 2030, and between 27 percent and 41 percent in 2059, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Moreover, a comprehensive survey conducted on behalf of Germany’s Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, in cooperation with the Macro Center for Political Economics in Tel Aviv, of youth aged 15 to 18 and 21 to 24 suggest this age group is far more right wing than their parents.
In particular, these young people are less tolerant of Palestinian-Israelis. When given a choice between an Israel that is more democratic and less Jewish or less democratic and more Jewish, they chose the latter.
Numerous polls show that a majority of Palestinian-Israelis want to remain citizens of Israel. However, religious Zionists believe that Palestinian-Israelis are hostile to Israel. Large majorities see Palestinian-Israelis, their fellow citizens, as a threat and would like to see the government push them to leave the country.
A Changing Army
Allied to the increasing propensity to religiosity among Israeli Jews are trends in the composition of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), a change that raises questions about the reliability of the army.
The IDF is increasingly a religious army, recruited from the settler community in the West Bank.
The rate of settler recruitment to combat units in the IDF is 80 percent higher than the rest of country. In 2011, two-thirds of draftees from West Bank settlements served in combat units, compared with 40 percent from the rest of country.
As The Christian Science Monitor recently observed, “The percentage of officer cadets who are religious has grown tenfold since the early 1990s.” Ten years ago, Orthodox Jewish men accounted for 2.5 percent of military graduates. Today, that figure has grown to more than 25 percent.
In some combat units, Orthodox men now make up 50 percent of new combat officers—four times their share in the population. There are now entire units of religious combat soldiers, many of them based in West Bank settlements where an implicit alliance between some settler communities and the IDF are commonplace.
These religious combat soldiers answer to hard-line rabbis who call for the establishment of a greater Israel that includes the West Bank. These changes are paralleled by a decline in the number of combat soldiers and officers coming from secular families.
Putting an Agreement Into Practice
The role of these rabbis in controlling the army raises the question: If a two-state agreement miraculously emerged out of the current rampant violence, what are the realities of putting it into place?
In a survey, 40 percent of national religious respondents said that IDF units should refuse to evacuate settlers if their rabbis ordered them to.
Could the IDF be relied upon to evacuate Jerusalem and West Bank settlements—as they did in Gaza in 2005—with battalion commanders who are increasingly religious?
Best estimates are that about 100,000 settlers would have to be evacuated from the West Bank under any such agreement.
There are no firm estimates of the number of armed settlers who are likely to resist evacuation. However, between 30 percent and 40 percent of West Bank settlers can be considered “ideological.”
“Ideological settlers,” according to Oded Eran, who served as head of Israel’s negotiating team from 1999 to 2000, “are the toughest.“ In an interview for my book, Eran pointed out that this group tends to live deeper inside the West Bank. And, for ideological reasons, a small number may take the law into their own hands.
A call for evacuation could lead to violence between the settlers and the IDF and violence between settlers and the Palestinian population. “This is going to be a long, painful and expensive operation,” Eran said.
In 2010, Amos Harel, a military correspondent for Haaretz, the liberal English language Israeli newspaper, asked, “Has the IDF become an army of settlers?”
Harel noted the potential for mass disobedience in the face of such orders was making many Israeli politicians and senior officers have second thoughts before ordering soldiers to take actions against settlers. In the succeeding five years, with the continuing disproportionate influx of settler recruits to the IDF, the question is more pertinent.
Would an Israeli prime minister risk giving such an order, unsure whether it would be implemented? Such an order could tear apart the cohesiveness of Israel, already rife with multiple fault lines.
Right now, the weight of uncertainties surrounding a two-state solution seems to outweigh the benefits.
The future? There will be no mitigation of present trends. With every passing year using the IDF to evacuate settlers will become more problematic, and evacuation less likely.
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