JERUSALEM – Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has announced Israel will unilaterally withdraw from most of the West Bank and make other moves aimed at changing the Jewish state’s borders.

In taking the widely anticipated actions, Olmert explained his policy by claiming Palestinians may soon outnumber Jews and threaten Israel’s Jewish character unless a separation is imposed.

Critics have said not only is the territory covered by Olmert’s plan strategic and vital to Israel’s defense, but state the acting prime minister is relying on false demographic information. They point to a recent studying indicating Jews likely will outnumber Arabs by more than double in 20 years.

“[Israel] will separate from most of the Palestinian population that lives in the West Bank, and that will obligate us to separate as well from territories where the state of Israel currently is,” Olmert said in his first media interview since assuming his job as premier after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke last month.

“We will gather ourselves into the main settlement blocs and preserve united Jerusalem. … Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel will be part of the state of Israel,” he said.

Olmert, leading overwhelmingly in most polls ahead of March’s national elections, explained at a conference last month any West Bank withdrawal will be for reasons of Palestinian demography.

“The choice between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandates giving up parts of the land of Israel,” Olmert said. “We cannot continue to control parts of the territories where most of the Palestinians live.”

Olmert said under his West Bank withdrawal plan, Israel will maintain select security zones and some of the area’s major West Bank Jewish communities, alluding to evacuating West Bank towns that fall outside Israel’s security fence.

About 200,000 Jews live in the West Bank.

The security fence, still under construction in certain areas, cordons off nearly 95 percent of the territory from Israel’s pre-1967 borders. More than half the West Bank’s Jewish residents reside on the side of the fence closest to Israel. About 80,000 more Jews live on the other side of the barrier.

Olmert said he is seeking a West Bank withdrawal to set “the permanent borders of the state of Israel to ensure a Jewish majority.”

But as WorldNetDaily reported, a new study presented last month by American researchers and widely ignored by Olmert’s administration contends a West Bank withdrawal based on demography is groundless because Israel’s Jews will more than double Arabs in 20 years.

The study, titled”Forecast for Israel and the West Bank 2025,” found Palestinians have inflated their population by as much as 1.5 million. It also said Jewish birthrates are outstripping Palestinian rates by far, and that Israel’s own statistics fail to account for even low levels of Jewish immigration when calculating national demographic trends.

Americans Bennet Zimmerman, Roberta Seid and Michael Wise put the current Palestinian-Arab population of the West Bank at 1.4 million and Gaza 1.1 million, for a total of 2.4 million, instead of the 3.8 million reported by the Palestinian Authority Central Bureau of Statistics.

They found faults in the methods used by the PA to determine its population, including counting the 230,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem twice and retroactively raising growth and birth rates while the rates actually have been declining.

Zimmerman’s team has shown birthrates among Israeli Orthodox Jews are at their highest levels ever and that general Israeli Jewish fertility over the past five years has risen above top scenarios first considered by Israel’s Bureau of Statistics. The study says Israel did not account for a likely continuation of Jewish immigration trends over the next 20 years.

The allegedly inflated PA population numbers have been accepted by Israel and were used in formulating future demographic statistics, including those outlined in Olmert’s address.

The PA information also was adopted by such prominent Israeli demographers as the University of Haifa’s Arnon Soffer and the Hebrew University’s Sergio Della Pergola, who both famously warned that by 2020 Jews will make up between 40 and 46 percent of the population in both Israel and the territories.

Under Zimmerman’s mid-case scenario, however, Israeli Jews maintain current fertility rates and immigration averages of 20,000 per year or 400,000 over two decades. Israeli Arab fertility rates, meanwhile, fall slowly over a 20 year period. The result is a Jewish majority in Israel in 2025 of 63 percent.

According to other likely scenarios contained in the new data, Jews could outnumber Arabs by 71 percent if Jewish fertility rates continue to rise and immigration increases further.

Some Israeli critics, a few of whom have been associated with Israel’s liberal parties, have been slamming Zimmerman’s study. Della Pergola, who conducted previous studies in Israel upholding the PA claims, called Zimmerman’s findings “groundless,” politically slanted and baseless from a research perspective. He also slammed some of the credentials of Zimmerman’s researchers.

But the study has been lauded by esteemed American demographers Nicholas Eberstadt and Murray Feshbach, among others.

“It is ironic that just as we now find Israel is in the best position ever with regard to population, Olmert announces a plan to run away and give up the West Bank, claiming Israel’s Jewish character is threatened,” said Zimmerman.

The West Bank is considered landlocked territory not officially recognized as part of any country. Israel calls the land “disputed,” while the United Nations says the West Bank is “occupied” by Israel. The Jewish state maintains overall control of most of the area while the Palestinian Authority has jurisdiction in about 40 percent.

The territory remained under Jordanian rule from 1948 until Israel captured it in 1967 after Jordan’s King Hussein ignored Israeli pleas for his country to stay out of the Six Day War. Most countries rejected Jordan’s initial claim on the area, which it formally renounced in 1988.

The West Bank borders most of Israel’s major cities, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Military strategists long have estimated Israel must maintain the West Bank to defend its borders from any ground invasion.

Many villages in the West Bank, which Israelis commonly refer to as the “biblical heartland,” are mentioned throughout the Torah.

The book of Genesis says Abraham entered Israel at Shechem (Nablus) and received God’s promise of land for his offspring. He later was buried in Hebron.

The nearby town of Beit El, anciently called Bethel meaning “house of God,” is where Scripture says the patriarch Jacob slept on a stone pillow and dreamed of angels ascending and descending a stairway to heaven. In that dream, God spoke directly to Jacob and reaffirmed the promise of territory.

And in Exodus, the holy tabernacle rested in Shilo, believed to be the first area the ancient Israelites settled after fleeing Egypt.

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