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Same Netanyahu, Different Israel

The Demographic Challenges to Peace

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, much will look familiar to the last time he was accorded this honor, 15 years ago, during his first term as prime minister. Then, Netanyahu felt more at home in a Republican-led Congress (the GOP held both houses in 1996) than at Pennsylvania Avenue in a Democrat-inhabited White House. And he did little to disguise his willingness to play adversarial politics on the president's home turf.

Back in the mid-1990s, Netanyahu offered no flexibility on peace. This week, he will likely serve up more of the same. Yet as much as Netanyahu himself remains constant, Israel has undergone some dramatic changes over the last 15 years. In some respects, these changes have made Netanyahu more representative of the country he leads; in others, less so. Israel's parliament, its politics, and its public discourse have all shifted to the right, in the direction of Netanyahu's Likud party. The rump Zionist left-of-center in Israel's Knesset has shriveled from 43 members in 1996 to just 11 today.

The leaders of Israel's three largest political parties today -- Tzipi Livni of Kadima, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, and Netanyahu himself, the leader of Likud -- are all descendants of the revisionist or right-Zionist ideological tradition. Yet Netanyahu as a person has become less reflective of Israeli society. He is a descendant of Western-oriented, secular Ashkenazi stock: the stuff from which Israel's old elites were drawn, not its new and ascendant communities.

The shift in Israel's socio-demographic reality over the last 15 years has great implications for the future of the country's democracy and economy -- not to mention for any thought that might be given to living in peace with Israel's neighbors. In 1996, Israel's population was 5.7 million people; today, that number is 7.75 million. The two fastest-growing population groups are the Palestinian Arab community and ultra-Orthodox Jews (known as the Haredi). Today, there are 1.59 million Palestinian Arabs in Israel, compared to 1.03 million in 1996.

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