Olmert, an erstwhile hawk, argued on 5 December that the “status quo” was “destroying Zionism”, and that Jews would have to make “hard and fateful decisions sooner than later because later could be too late.”

A confidant of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Olmert warned that Israel “must choose either to retain the (occupied) territories and consequently risk losing its Jewish majority, or leave the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and therefore sacrifice dear parts of the land of Israel."

Olmert’s unprecedented remarks sent shockwaves through the Israeli Jewish society, particularly the rightist camp, long inured to the idea of “Eretz Yisrael Ha’shlema” or the Land of Greater Israel. 

Backlash

In West Jerusalem, right-wing activists scribbled graffiti caricaturing the former mayor of Jerusalem as a self-hating Jew. 

“For the first time in the history of the Likud, one of our ministers is proposing we flee our very soul, the western land of Israel, to cut ourselves off from parts of the homeland, without which we wouldn’t exist and would lack the right to exist.”

Tzhai Hanegbi, Israeli minister

Moreover, posters showing Olmert wearing Nazi insignia were put up in several settlements in the West Bank.

Sharon himself has not reacted to the remarks, but one of his ministers, Tzhai Hanegbi called Olmert “a man whose endurance resembles a spider’s web in fragility."

For the first time in the history of the Likud, one of our ministers is proposing we flee our very soul, the western land of Israel, to cut ourselves off from parts of the homeland, without which we would not exist and would lack the right to exist,” said Hanegbi.

'Political bomb'

It is not clear what prompted Olmert, who until recently was considered one of the most radical Israeli politicians, to detonate this “political bomb”, using the words of an Israeli journalist.

According to Shlomo Avinery, Head of the Middle East and Europe Department at the Hebrew University Political Science Department, Olmert is trying to position himself as a potential successor to Sharon.

Settlements have developed into
full-fledged urban communities

“I think he is positioning himself to succeed Sharon. If I understand him correctly, he knows he cannot rally people on the right behind him, that is why he uses the demographic argument to mobilise people in his favor,” he said.

Nonetheless, Avinery recognises that there is a feeling throughout Israel that “we are stuck and something needs to be done.”

“They (the political echelons) are reaching to the conclusion that they have to make strategic decisions now. And the demographic issue is used to highlight the urgency of the situation.”

Dilemma

Olmert is far from being a lonely voice in the wilderness. There are many Israelis, including veteran politicians, intellectuals and Intelligence officials who are convinced that Israel is facing a serious existential dilemma, haunting the future survivability of the entire Zionist enterprise.

One of these is Labor leader Shimon Peres, who recently reiterated his conviction that the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is “a paramount Zionist interest.”

However, things are easier said than done.

"All these Nazi-like tactics have failed to break our will to resist and survive. Instead, our steadfastness is causing cracks within the Israeli society"

Abd al-Sattar Qassim,
Professor, al-Najah National University

Since 1967, Israel has dotted the West Bank with hundreds of Jewish-only settlements, which have come to dominate much of the landscape of the occupied territories.

Indeed, some of these settlements, like Ariel in the northern West Bank, have developed into full-fledged urban communities.

More to the point, the bulk of the settlers living in these settlements are well-connected messianic Jews who have strong influence not only in Israel, but also among the powerful Jewish communities in North America.

It would, therefore, be quite difficult for any Israeli government to dislodge them from a land they believe was given to them by God.

Strategic asset

Seeking to neutralise Arab demographic growth, successive Israeli governments used excessive institutionalised persecution of the Palestinians.

However, Israel’s harsh tactics, which include wanton home demolitions and destruction of farms, orchards and public infrastructure, as well as the building of a gigantic apartheid wall which grabbed large chunks of the west Bank, have failed to subjugate the Palestinians, let alone cause them to leave their ancestral homeland.

Israel's tactics in the West Bank
include demolishing houses

“All these Nazi-like tactics have failed to break our will to resist and survive. Instead, our steadfastness is causing cracks within the Israeli society, and Olmert’s statements should be understood in this context,” said Abd al-Sattar Qassim, professor of Political Science at al-Najah National University.

“They (Israel) have come to realise that our blood has defeated their swords. And now they are discussing other options,” Qassim said.

Qassim argued that the “demographic variable” was a “strategic asset” for the Palestinians that should be utilised to the fullest.

“This is a very important variable. It can be compared to military and economic power in its strategic significance.”

Non-Jewish majority

Israel’s demographic woes were exacerbated this week when Haifa University demographer Arnon Sofer declared that there was already a majority of non-Jews in mandatory Palestine, which includes Israel proper, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“At this very minute, within the western land of Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan, there is already a non-Jewish majority,” Sofer told the Israeli radio on Tuesday.

Sofer forecast that within 17 years, an additional six million people would be added to the estimated current population of 10 million Jews and Arabs in Israel-Palestine. This land is entering into a demographic-ecological whirlwind.”

Facing reality

Conscious of the demographic realities, Palestinian leaders are calling on Jewish leaders to cope with reality “as civilised countries would”.

"At this very minute, within the western land of Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan, there is already a non-Jewish majority"

Arnon Sofer, Haifa University demographer

“They (Israel) should know that all undemocratic solutions such as apartheid, ethnic cleansing, perpetual occupation, etc will not work,” said Arab Knesset member Ahmad Taibi.

“There are only two choices: either a viable Palestinian state on 100% of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and without Jewish settlers arrogating Palestinian land and resources, or one democratic state for all.” “The choice is theirs, and they must make it now.”