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Bennett (Ben) Zimmerman couldn't believe his eyes as he looked down from the settlement of Har Bracha at the city of Nablus, which lies at the foot of the hill. "When I visited the West Bank and saw Nablus, I asked myself, `Is that the whole thing?' I thought it would be a lot bigger," he relates. Zimmerman once saw a Palestinian spokesman being interviewed on CNN and talking about an Arab majority in the Land of Israel. The visit to the territories convinced him that it's inconceivable, that the numbers just don't add up. Where are all these Palestinians? He smelled a plot. When he got back to Los Angeles he wrote an article for the Internet site of Arutz Sheva, the settlers' pirate radio station, entitled "Time for a Recount."

The article, which appeared in November 2003, warned about a Palestinian campaign for the establishment of one state with equal voting rights for all, like the struggle that was conducted against South Africa in the 1980s. The Palestinians, he maintained, were trying to inflate the number of residents in the territories in order to undercut Israel's image. The best way to deprive the Palestinians of this tactic, he wrote, is to challenge the accuracy of their exaggerated numbers. He addes that if the data of the Palestinian Authority were accepted without proper checking, Israel's existence would be based on an Arab lie.

Zimmerman, who supports Jewish sovereignty west of the Jordan River, decided to investigate the subject and to show that the public debate over the "demographic problem" is being conducted on the basis of mistaken data that inflates the number of Palestinians and diminishes the scale of the Jewish majority in the country. He contacted Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli diplomat who is a strategic adviser and a well-known extra-parliamentary right-wing activist. Ettinger had previously published articles casting doubt on the severity of the demographic threat.

"Ben called me and said, let's seize the initiative; I would invite a few people in Israel, he would invite a few people abroad, and we would see if we were right and they were wrong," Ettinger said this week. "I deliberately chose a range of people who would bring me back to earth in case I let ideology take control."

The missing 1.5 million

Their efforts were presented this month at think tanks in Washington and Jerusalem and in the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. Their findings purport to undermine the conventional verities and show that there are a lot fewer Arabs in the territories than is generally thought. According to their calculations, there are 2.4 million Arabs in the territories and not 3.8 million, which is the number usually accepted by politicians and researchers and is based on data of the Palestinian Authority's Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). The "million-and-a-half person gap," they call it.

These statistics are political dynamite. The "demographic problem" is the cardinal justification for supporters of Israeli separation from the territories. It has become a truism of the public and political discourse that within a few years the Jews will become a minority "between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean" and that if the Israeli occupation continues, Israel will find itself in the midst of an unavoidable explosion between its Jewish identity and its democracy. Either it will become a binational state with an Arab majority or it will be reviled, like South Africa in the apartheid period.

During the years of the intifada, this approach trickled from the left into the political center, and even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who in the past denied the existence of a "demographic threat" now cites it as justification for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians are aware of this Israeli anxiety and are trying to intensify it. Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian cabinet minister, who this week spoke at a conference held by the Pares Center for Peace, warned his listeners, "Every additional house you add in the settlements prevents a solution of two states for two peoples. And then there will be one state, but you will be a minority in it." However, if the Jewish majority is large and stable, and there really is no demographic problem, there is also no rush to get out of the territories.

Exaggerated estimate

The findings of the study (which can be found at www.pademographics.com) are generating doubt about the previous assumptions. The study's authors cleverly used official Palestinian data in order to undermine the familiar numbers. Cross-matching of figures issued by the Palestinian Health Ministry, which counts the number of births and deaths in the territories, with the data of Israeli Border Control, which monitor the entrances to and departures from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, showed that the estimate of the PCBS was exaggerated. The birthrate in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was lower than expected and the Palestinian balance of immigration was negative in recent years, in contrast to the forecast. The PCBS also counted Palestinians who are residents of East Jerusalem, who also appear in the official statistics of Israeli residents. After these adjustments, the number of Palestinians in the territories is put at 3.06 million, which is hundreds of thousands lower than the accepted figure.

But the group did not stop there. They maintain that the Palestinian Health Ministry exaggerated the number of births, perhaps as a result of political pressure. Therefore, they cross-matched those figures with the data of the Israeli Civil Administration in the pre-Oslo years and with a press announcement by the Palestinian Elections Committee, according to which 200,000 Palestinians are living abroad. By this means they succeeded in reducing the number by another 650,000. Subsequently they tried to refute the claims that the Palestinian birthrate is the highest in the world, and to remove from the count Palestinians who moved from the territories to inside the Green Line and received Israeli ID cards. Those figures, though, are more controversial.

The project leader, Ben Zimmerman, is a businessman who runs a small fund for investing in shares of Israeli high-tech companies. He votes Republican and loves the old songs of Elton John. He got into politics a few years ago when he established American Friends of the Golan and fought against the withdrawal plan of former prime minister Ehud Barak.

"I love being on the Golan Heights," he said this week. "They have a special way of life there, which has to be preserved for future generations. And there is no demographic issue, either." Zimmerman lived in the Golan Heights for a few months and ran his business affairs from there, but did not consider immigrating to Israel, he says. "I am an American and I don't even use the title `Zionist,' because that means moving to Israel."

Zimmerman is part of a group of Jewish activists from the West Coast who bypassed the traditional Jewish establishment and launched aggressive pro-Israel activity during the intifada. Historian Roberta Seid, who took part in the demographic study, is the author of a book on the slim image among woman. In recent years she has been active in the organization "Stand With Us," which demonstrated in favor of the separation wall in front of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Yoram Ettinger, the Israeli partner in the study, enlisted for his team Brigadier General (res.) David Shahaf, a former head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, who is not politically involved. After examining birth rate data in neighboring countries and trying to infer from them the trends in the Palestinian society, Shahaf succeeded in obtaining the reports of the Palestinian Health Ministry. That was the breakthrough. According to Ettinger, getting the data from the Israeli authorities, and especially from the Interior Ministry, was more complicated. The work went on for about nine months.

Zimmerman raised the funds, about $15,000, donating a third himself, getting another third from a person named Peter Mander, and the rest from a few donors in Los Angeles. The research team included only one demographic expert, Avraham Shvout, as well as several historians and mathematicians. Publication of the findings was delayed, Ettinger says, until professional confirmation was received from another demographer, Nick Eberstadt, from the American Enterprise Institute, the bastion of Washington neoconservatives.

Need for a check

Objections to the new study have been voiced by Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, one of Israel's leading demographers and a researcher at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem. In a report he published last year, DellaPergola estimated that the Jewish majority in the Land of Israel would reach an end around 2010. His conclusion was that the country should be divided on a demographic-ethnic basis, with exchanges of populated areas: The Palestinians would get the Arab towns and villages in the Triangle area in return for the settlements adjacent to Jerusalem and those in western Samaria: Ma'aleh Adumim in exchange for Umm al-Fahm.

According to DellaPergola's calculations, there are 3.4 million Palestinians in the territories. After reading the Zimmerman-Ettinger study, he says he did not take into account the emigration of Palestinians and thinks this has to be examined, as well as examining the birth and mortality statistics of the Palestinian Authority.

"The emigration question requires investigation, and we also need to understand the difference in number of births between the PCBS and the Palestinian Health Ministry," he says. But he disputes both the view that the birthrate among Muslims in the territories and inside the Green Line can be expected to decline significantly, and the optimistic forecasts about an increase in the number of Jews.

According to DellaPergola, "Even if we make the unreasonable assumption that the Arab fertility rate will fall immediately to the Jewish level, without taking emigration into account, there will be erosion in the Jewish majority. It will be slower, but in the end we reach the day of a tie, and the day on which the Jews will be a minority between the sea and the river. In the light of far more reasonable fertility assumptions, the Jewish majority will end very quickly." Zimmerman, in contrast, says that if 50,000 Jews immigrate to Israel every year it will be possible to preserve the 60:40 Jewish majority over time.

So who's right? Both sides show in their reports that demographic forecasts tend to be proved wrong, especially in unstable areas such as the Land of Israel. But despite the crucial importance of demography to the political debate and the shaping of Israeli policy, the government has flinched from undertaking a thorough examination of the data.

Zimmerman says he was surprised to discover that since the Oslo accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, no Israeli government department has conducted an orderly monitoring of the Palestinians' natural rate of increase and of emigration from the territories. Discussions held last year in the National Security Council produced no clear conclusions. The new study, even if its findings are controversial, will undoubtedly generate a reexamination.