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Israelis ponder a land swap

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Nabil Saad's roadside restaurant "Hilmi," or "My Dream," attracts hungry travelers - Arabs and Jews alike - who are passing through this Arab town inside Israel.

But if rising nationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman has his way, the land on which Mr. Saad's restaurant sits - and Umm el-Fahm's population of 45,000 - will simply be transferred from Israel to a future Palestinian state without moving an inch.

That is, if they want to actually stay in Umm el-Fahm. According to Lieberman, whose party suddenly emerged from last week's elections as Israel's fifth-biggest party, residents who wanted to maintain Israeli citizenship could relocate within Israel. But their land would be annexed to the Palestinian West Bank.

A unilateral land swap - trading Israeli-Arab towns inside Israel for Israeli settlements in the West Bank - is based on a perception that this may be crucial to the survival of a Jewish state. It's less about security from suicide attacks, and more about a demographic battle with as many as 1 million Arab citizens of Israel, many who view themselves as Palestinians.

Population math has already become a part of Israel's political arithmetic. Studies regularly show that Jewish birth rates in Israel are far lower than they are among Arabs. Demographers regularly chart the possibility of getting to what has long been viewed as one of Israel's worst-case scenarios: as many Arabs in Israel as Jews, an effective end to a state that is both Jewish and democratic.

The fact that Israel would soon be ruling over as many Arabs as Jews was used by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a selling point for the withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip last summer.

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