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Israel's growing demographic problem is not because of Palestinians, but of Israeli Arabs, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday.

Speaking at the Herzliya Conference on security, Netanyahu said Israel had already freed itself from control of almost all Palestinian Arabs. He said he could not foresee a future in which "any sane Israeli" could try to make Palestinians either Israeli citizens or "enslaved subjects." The Palestinians would under all circumstances rule themselves and administer their own affairs, he said.

"If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens," he said. The Declaration of Independence said Israel should be a Jewish and democratic state, but to ensure the Jewish character was not engulfed by demography, it was necessary to ensure a Jewish majority, he said.

If Israel's Arabs become well integrated and reach 35-40 percent of the population, there will no longer be a Jewish state but a bi-national one, he said. If Arabs remain at 20 percent but relations are tense and violent, this will also harm the state's democratic fabric. "Therefore a policy is needed that will balance the two."

The economy is the single most important factor that will lead to Jews immigrating to Israel, he said. "I go mad when I see that because of low taxation in Moscow, there is now a capital flow there. If we want Jews to come here, we need a flourishing and dynamic economy. If we want Israeli Arabs to integrate, we need a flourishing and dynamic economy."

He said it was necessary to improve education standards, especially for Arab citizens. Netanyahu said that the "separation fence" would also help to prevent a "demographic spillover" of Palestinians from the territories.

Reactions to the speech were not slow in coming from Arab Knesset members and others. "Netnayahu's demographic time bomb is a stink bomb and a racist one," said Ahmed Tibi (Hadash). "The day is not far off when Netnayahu and his followers will set up roadblocks at the entrance to Arab villages to tie Arab women's tubes and spray them with anti-spermicide."

Azmi Bishara, of Balad (National Democratic Alliance) said: "Describing the original residents of this land as a demographic problem would be considered racism in any normal, or even abnormal, country."

Makhoul Issam Makhoul (Hadash) said: "A leader who considers 20 percent of the population of Israel to be a demographic threat and treats them as an existential problem, is himself a racist threat to democracy, sanity, and the rule of law - and he should be disposed of immediately for the good of both peoples."

Talab a-Sana (United Arab List) said: "How would Netanyahu react if someone in the West or the U.S. said that the reproduction rate of Haredi Jews was a demographic problem? Netnayahu has double standards."

Labor whip Dalia Itzik described Netanyahu as "a serial pyromaniac." She said: "He has already lit the flames between rich and poor, and now he is trying to do the same between Jews and Arabs."

Yossi Sarid, MK (Meretz), said: "It is amazing to see how great leaders can instantly be revealed as small racists. The Palestinian problem has not yet been solved in the territories and they are already trying to create another problem with Israeli Arabs... A thousand firemen will not be enough to put out the flames one frivolous man set alight."