JERUSALEM, OCT. 30 -- Proposals for a transfer of the Arab population from Israel either voluntarily or by force, an emotionally charged idea that was once taboo in political debate here, are emerging as a subject of increasing public discussion.
The latest government official to advocate the idea is Yosef Shapira, a minister without portfolio and a leader of the small but influential National Religious Party, who told a party meeting earlier this week that the government should give $20,000 to any Arab willing to emigrate from Israel.
Shapira is the first full Cabinet minister to endorse such a plan. But his remarks followed a call earlier this year from Deputy Defense Minister Michael Dekel, a member of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud political bloc, that the 900,000 Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank be removed to Jordan, which he described as "their country." Otherwise, he warned, the region would "turn into a powder keg."
A retired major general, Rehavam Zeevi, who once commanded Israeli forces on the West Bank, has expressed similar views publicly, as has Yuval Neeman, leader of the rightist Tehiya party. They disclosed that in the 1950s the Army proposed an operation to expel West Bank Arabs following Israeli conquest of the region. The proposal, called the Ishmael Plan, was never adopted.
All of these remarks were quickly disowned by leaders of both Likud and Labor, the country's main political blocs. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres called Dekel's idea "twisted and perverted" and said it could do immense damage to Israel's international reputation. Similarly, National Religious Party leader Zevulun Hammer, a party rival of Shapira, scorned the minister's proposal as "alien" and harmful to their party.
Palestinians are apprehensive that the transfer proposal may ultimately gain majority support.
"My initial reaction to Shapira was that if he's offering $20,000 to every Arab to leave, I'm sure the Arab countries will offer $40,000 for every Jew to leave as well," said Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian academic known for his moderate views.
But he added that Palestinians see the proposal as "the possible beginning of a racial and religious war. It's obvious that it's coming, and it's a terrifying future we're facing so long as the problem is not solved."
Nusseibeh, who was beaten up by radical students on the West Bank campus of Bir Zeit University last month for meeting with Likud politicians, warned that "if the situation continues in the same way, the extremist faction on one side will antagonize the extremist faction on the other, and they will feed off each other."
Nonetheless, the proposal has struck a responsive chord among some Israelis and some analysts believe that it is likely to be heard increasingly in mainstream political circles. The main reason is a growing awareness among the public of demographic projections showing Arabs in the occupied territories and Israel proper becoming the majority population sometime in the first half of the 21st century.
There are now about 3.5 million Jews and 2.1 million Arabs in Israeli-controlled lands -- 1.35 million Arabs in the occupied territories and another 750,000 within the original borders of the state. This is a 62-to-38 ratio. By the year 2000, Haifa University demographer Arnon Sofer projects, the ratio will be 55-to-45 and ever narrowing because of rapid Arab population growth.
Faced with these figures, those on the left, such as Peres, have argued for an intensified effort for a peace accord with Jordan that would either return some of the territories to Arab rule or at least place their Palestinian residents under Jordanian sovereignty. But for some on the right who reject both options as either unrealistic or unacceptable, the painful but logical solution is expulsion.
Polls suggest that a substantial minority of Israelis favor a transfer of Arabs. Rabbi Meir Kahane, an ultranationalist on the right-wing fringe, won a Knesset seat in 1984 advocating expulsion of all of Israel's Arabs. His election gave him a national forum for that viewpoint, even though he has been shunned by mainstream politicians and by the media.
Opinion surveys indicate that his party might add only a seat or two in a new election, but that between 25 and 30 percent of the public sympathize with his views.
"There is no question that people are finally becoming aware that demographics are a real problem that won't go away," said Israeli political scientist Daniel Elazar. "When extremists speak about expulsion and the walls don't fall down, it opens doors for others as well."
In the Arab-Israeli conflict, Elazar added, "each side, if they had their druthers, would wish the other to disappear. The difference is the degree to which each is willing to carry it out and even to talk about it."
When Dekel first broached the transfer proposal, Prime Minister Shamir refused to censure or demote him, saying the idea was "a private opinion and not that of the Likud." But other Likudniks, most notably Binyamin Begin, son of the former Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, spoke out strongly against it.
Binyamin Begin said in an interview that he had spoken against transfer for moral reasons, reflecting the view that it was inconceivable for Jews, who had been subjected to many expulsions in their history, to expel another group.