Israeli President Shimon Peres has warned of the demographic consequences on the Jewish state of ongoing settlement in the occupied West Bank.
“Israeli settlements in densely populated Arab areas could bring about a demographic change about which we would do well to think hard about before acting,” he said in remarks broadcast on both army radio and Israel public radio.
“Without a Jewish majority, it is doubtful whether a Jewish state can remain Jewish,” he warned during a ceremony held on Tuesday evening.
His remarks alluded to demographic consequences of a possible annexation of the West Bank, an issue which came up earlier this week with the publication of a report which found that Jews “have the legal right” to settle in the territory.
Projections show Israel is rapidly losing the “demographic battle” against the Palestinians who are set to outnumber Jews in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean within a matter of years.
Official statistics show there are currently some 5.9 million Jews living in Israel and the occupied territories, compared with 5.8 million Palestinian Arabs: 1.6 million Arab Israelis, 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and 1.6 million in Gaza.
The report, written by three prominent Israeli jurists, rejected the idea that Israel was a “military occupying power” in the West Bank and said the establishment of settlements there “cannot be considered illegal” in conclusions which contradict international law.
The international community considers all settlements built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem to be illegal because they are built on territory Israel occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War.
But Peres’s remarks sparked an angry response from Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha settlers council, who accused him of “once again violating the institution of the presidency” by expressing a political position.
“The Jews have a majority west of the Jordan River, that is to say in Israel and Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), and that majority has never been called into question,” he told army radio.
“What keeps the state Jewish is the link with Jewish tradition and history which can only be kept if we are living in Hebron, Beit El or Shilo,” he said, referring to settlements built at sites where Jews lived during biblical times.
In Israel, the president’s role is largely ceremonial.
Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was one of the main architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords signed with the Palestine Liberation Organisation to launch autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli left has long argued that the creation of a Palestinian state is vital if Israel is to retain both its Jewish and democratic nature.