The 38% Solution

“The danger,” Ehud Olmert told me (in an interview during February 2007), “is that we move from an Algerian situation to a South African one.” Presumably, one can withdraw from Algeria. But leave things as they are, Olmert said, and people around the world, including most Jews (if not most Jewish leaders), will start calling for one-person, one-vote in Israel/Palestine. Which will be the end of Israel as we know it.

There is a demographic problem—so Olmert and most others in the Israeli “center” say—by which they mean that Arab citizens of Israel, combined with the Palestinian residents in the territories, will be the majority between the Jordan River and the sea, if they are not already. What would happen if they made common cause? Besides, Israel is a globalized state. Can it have an economy that depends on reciprocity with the democratic world if it fails the most elementary democratic tests?

The prime minister is now telling this to everyone, inadvertently stepping on Jimmy Carter’s mine, looking for support among Israeli citizens as he enters into desultory final status negotiations within the Annapolis process. And it is hard to see who will not find his logic compelling, particularly since the arguable Iranian threat inarguably calls for a tacit alliance with the major Arab states that attended the conference. Recent polls suggest that Olmert’s policy could command between 50-60% of Israeli Jewish voters. Will his support not grow now?

Not much. The same polls say that 38% of the Jewish public is firmly against negotiating for the return of any territory or for even debating the so-called core issues of the conflict: Jerusalem, the 1967 borders, and so forth. Presumably, these are people who either do not believe that Palestinians are serious about peace or that moderate Palestinians can deliver Islamist insurgents; their minds can be changed. But look again at their number. Slightly older polls show that 38% are for a state governed by Jewish law over democratic law. Another recent poll shows 38% are for pardoning Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir. Something like 38% elect parties of the extreme right: Shas, Haredi parties, National Union, Lieberman’s Russian bloc. Do you see a pattern here?

One of the hardest things for people not living in Israel to grasp is that the people of Israel's hard right are not just embattled middle-class folk, reflexively moved by the fear of terrorist violence or insults to patriotism—like the people in Manchester, New Hampshire, say, who’ll be voting for Rudy Giuliani in the primary, but could be persuaded to vote for a Democrat in the general if Iraq deteriorates further, or their jets simply cool. (Israelis have voters like that. They mostly vote Likud and Kadima.)

Rather, the 38% that we see here are people living in more or less hermetic worlds, and their political opinions are passed on pretty much intact to their children, like their Sabbath observances: ultraOrthodox living in secluded neighborhoods; scripture-hawk settlers living across the green line; poor and barely educated Mizrahi Jews, living in development towns and nursing old grievances against Arabs and the Ashkenazi rich; new-immigrant Russians reading their own press and looking for an Israeli Putin.

I wrote about Israel’s five tribes some time ago and again before the last Israeli election, so I won’t belabor the point. The thing to keep in mind is that, the Russians aside, these people are having many more children than the national average, much like Israeli Arabs. In fact, if you look at first graders, a quarter are ultraOrthodox, and a quarter are Arab. In Jerusalem, 45% of schoolchildren are ultra-Orthodox, 30% are Arab, 15% are national-orthodox settler types, and only about 15% are secular.

So Israel has a demographic problem, alright, but it is not exactly the one we are accustomed to hearing about. The more tragic reality is that the Israeli right is growing fast because it is reproducing fast—even faster than the Israeli Arab community. The centrist elite Olmert represents is getting squeezed between, on the one hand, forces that would welcome a kind of Jewish Pakistan, and, on the other hand, forces that want a binational state.

Which means that this could well be the last chance at peace, but not—as the argument goes—because of Arab birthrates, Hamas rejectionism, and Oxford's debating union. If the Olmert government leaves office in 2010 or 2011 without having achieved a final status agreement—if the parties of the right take power within a coalition organized by Benjamin Netanyahu—what will Israel look like, and how violent will it be, at the end of another five years of stalemate? How many of the elite's sons and daughters will stick around to find out? Anyway, you don’t have to be a prophet to see where the children of Israel are heading.