To the Edge and Back

Abu Ala stood on the edge of the cliff, looked into the abyss - and pulled back. In doing so, he has done us a favor, because he has given us too a momentary glimpse into the terrifying prospect that threatens both peoples.

"We weren't intimidated," said an Israel Radio host on Sunday, a note of patriotic contentment in his voice. And because we weren't intimidated, he explained, Abu Ala took back his threat that the Palestinians would demand a bi-national state encompassing all of Eretz Israel if the government persisted in its policy in the territories.

Instead of this ineffectual threat, the radio host continued, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority pulled out the old shopworn one about unilaterally declaring an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. That threat, after all, stopped frightening us long ago.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon supplied proof for the radio host's smug assessment later that day. At a meeting with foreign correspondents in Jerusalem, he was asked about the demographic problem. "I don't see any demographic problem," he replied. Israel was not planning to annex the territories or grant the Palestinians citizenship, so "there is no need to worry about that."

When the Knesset met for a political session the next day, it became clear again how little impression Abu Ala's warning had made on Israel. Most speakers ignored it. The prime minister's remarks contained not the slightest reference to Abu Ala in particular or demography in general.

Only Shimon Peres was bitterly sarcastic. "Yesterday the prime minister said he wasn't worried about the demographic problem. I'm bursting with envy. How can you not be worried? Between the Mediterranean and the Jordan there are now 5.1 million Jews and 4.9 million non-Jews. Will they vanish in thin air? Will they disappear? Are you planning a transfer?" Sharon sat there slumped in his chair.

In answer to these questions, many members of Sharon's coalition are thinking, and increasingly saying: yes, yes, and yes. But what of the more moderate right, those who do not advocate such cruel or apocalyptic solutions (or at least not consciously)? These rightists, it seems, are still fighting the wars of the past on the battlefields of demography, waxing nostalgic over the great victories of yesteryear, basking in the illusion that what used to be, will go on forever.

In a relaxed conversation not long ago with Israeli journalists at a Moscow hotel, Sharon himself pointed confidently to the steady rate of Jewish population growth since Israel's inception. A demographic threat has always hovered over the Zionist enterprise, he said. There have always been pessimists, but their forecasts have always been wrong.

In the comments he made, and in his almost irrational faith, Sharon brought back memories of Yitzhak Shamir. In the early 1980s, Shamir, who was then foreign minister and would go on to become prime minister, was ridiculed and pitied for his enthusiastic prophecies of a huge wave of immigration from the Soviet Union. In the end, he turned out to be the true visionary and the scoffers, men of small stature.

The arrival of a million immigrants slowed down and to a large extent pushed the demographic threat from the national mind. The soaring birthrate in the national-religious sector in the last few years, and even more so in the ultra-Orthodox sector, has helped somewhat to keep the numbers of the occupiers and the occupied from veering closer.

But the past, with its massive waves of immigration, is not an index of the future. Aliyah from the former Soviet Union has slowed to a trickle, and no large influx of immigrants is visible on the horizon - unless the rise of anti-Semitism sets off a mass exodus from France. Could that be what the Israeli right is hoping for?

National policy must have its underpinnings not in history, however glorious it may have been, but in a realistic appraisal of the future. The truth is, that along with his belief in the eternal destiny of Israel, Sharon recognizes there is a good chance that no more demographic miracles will come our way.

In his remarks on Sunday, as in his silence on Monday, he hinted at his own solution to the demographic problem - a Palestinian state on 42 percent of the land surrounded and crisscrossed by the "terror-prevention fence."

But the lesson of the Bantustans of South Africa, in the deepest sense, is not just that a people cannot be imprisoned behind a fence, but that it is impossible to halt a demographic trend by geographic arrangements that one side imposes on the other. Demography cannot be suppressed in this way. It continues to effervesce until it spills over.

And that, in effect, was the message conveyed by Abu Ala. His words were more a prediction than a warning. He backpedaled only because he scared himself. Because if there is no commitment to a two-state solution, there is no rhyme nor reason for the existence of the Palestinian Authority, which is meant to be a stage in setting up an independent state alongside Israel. In a bi-national state, Hamas will be the ones to set the tone.

Abu Ala stood on the edge of the cliff, looked into the abyss - and pulled back. In doing so, he has done us a favor, because he has given us too a momentary glimpse into the terrifying prospect that threatens both peoples.