The scuttlebutt on settlements

Published in The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, March 4, 2016.

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Pray that US Vice President Biden doesn’t use his upcoming visit to Israel to pour more fuel on false fires regarding settlements. Illogic, dishonesty and unfairness towards Israel have marked Obama administration policy regarding settlements from day one, and there is no sign that Obama has learned from his mistakes.


When Joe Biden first visited Israel as US Vice President in March 2010 he and the Obama administration flew into a rage over Israel’s intention to build 1,600 homes for the ultra-Orthodox public in Ramat Shlomo (Reches Shuafat), an extension of Ramot Alon in northern Jerusalem. The international community still anachronistically views much of Jerusalem, including the northern Ramot zone, as ‘East Jerusalem,’ or ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory.’

Six years later, those homes are indeed under construction, despite Obama administration censure, and it’s a good thing too. It is one of the very few ‘settlement’ housing projects that the Netanyahu government has in fact advanced, despite Obama administration censure.

Ramat Shlomo is, after all, in the capital of Israel, and located in a part of the city that even leftists know will always remain part of Israel. It will be so even if the sweetest Israel-loving Palestinian leader takes over the Palestinian Authority, and Israel cuts him a generous land deal.

So let’s hope that Biden doesn’t use his visit to Israel this coming week to pour more fuel on false fires regarding settlements.

There is reason to worry. Illogic, dishonesty and unfairness towards Israel have marked Obama administration policy regarding settlements from day one, and there is no sign that Obama has learned from his mistakes.

The administration has time and again perfidiously blamed “rampant” settlement construction – fictional epidemic construction – for the failures of its peace process diplomacy.

The accusation is triply untrue.

First, because settlements didn’t scuttle any of the negotiating efforts; Palestinian obduracy and extremism did. Second, Netanyahu froze settlement construction all-together for ten months – the only Israeli leader ever to do so – yet the Palestinians spurned talks with Israel for most of that period, with no reciprocal concessions.

Third and most significantly, Netanyahu’s “right-wing” governments from 2009 until today have applied a restrictive approach to settlement building; much more restrictive than previous Israeli governments.

In fact, no new settlements in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank have been established by the government of Israel in at least ten years. (By contrast, Israel has planned, budgeted, tendered and built several dozen new towns and cities in the Negev and Galilee over the past decade).

Furthermore, within existing settlements, the Netanyahu governments have either built (via government tenders) or allowed building (via private initiative) at a lower annual average than the previous governments of Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak (over the years 2000-2008).

According to hard-and-fast housing start statistics of the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, during the terms of the Netanyahu I and Barak governments about 3,400 new homes were built on average per year; during the Sharon government, 1,900; during the Olmert government 1,800; and during the Netanyahu II and III governments, 1,550.

Government-initiated projects (public housing starts) under Netanyahu since 2009 have been at their lowest ever. Barely 100 homes a year were started by the government in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and 450 in 2014 (and apparently a similar number in 2015).

The exception to this is 2013, in which the Netanyahu government approved 1,250 public housing starts. This came during the Kerry peace process, in parallel to Israel’s release of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails. It was the ‘price’ to be paid in cabinet for pushing through the releases of Palestinian terrorists that Abbas demanded and Kerry promoted.

Abbas and Kerry were fully aware that this was the deal; there were no surprises. They accepted it. Yet Kerry false-heartedly blamed “massive” Israeli settlement construction when his peace process broke down. This is outrageously treacherous in itself, aside from the fact that the real cause of the collapse was Abbas’ rejection of Kerry’s proposals and the Palestinian decision to launch suit in international forums against Israel.

AMERICAN TEMERITY in tarring Netanyahu with settlement-building “crimes” is exacerbated by the fact that Washington knows, but refuses to acknowledge, that not all settlements are equal. The administration has refused to adopt a differentiated approach to settlements that would be coherent with reality, and recognize that almost 100 percent of housing starts in the territories have been within the confines of existing settlements or the zoned land of existing settlements.

Furthermore, the vast majority of Israeli housing starts have been in cities within settlement ‘blocs’ that Israel intends to negotiate for and keep under all circumstances: Efrat, Ariel-Elkana-Karnei Shomron, Maale Adumim, Beitar and Kirya Sefer (Modiin Ilit).

In fact, the overwhelming majority of all government-initiated building has been in the latter two Haredi cities; which, again, are cities stably-situated in Israel’s future.

In other words, there is no Israeli land grab underway, and nothing that would scuttle the establishment of a peaceful Palestinian state – if only there was a peaceful Palestinian leadership ready for genuine compromise with Israel.

OPPONENTS of settlement growth often point accusingly to the fact that over the past ten years the population of Judea and Samaria (not including Jerusalem) has grown by an average of 4.8 percent per year (although this has been dipping since 2012), amounting to about 15,000 people per year. This is high compared to the Israeli national average of 1.9 percent growth per year.

That’s correct, but not because of settlement construction! The main reason for this is the fact that the population in Judea and Samaria is very young and is having many babies – especially in the two large Haredi cities.

Forty percent of the annual growth in population (6,000 of 15,000 people a year) is in Haredi families. In 2014, for example, 75 percent of the growth in the settler population in the West Bank was sourced in “natural growth” (births), and only 25 percent from new families moving into settlements.

This natural growth creates pressure on the government (from Haredi parties too) to allow building in the existing settlements to accommodate the growing population and its public infrastructure needs. Generally, the Netanyahu government has not obliged; it has kept public housing starts to a minimum, as described above. Netanyahu has only countenanced private construction of about 1,000 units a year across Judea and Samaria to somewhat accommodate natural growth. As a result, there is a severe housing shortage in Judea and Samaria, which has an effect throughout Israel as well.

Israel is not even building much in Maale Adumim – an important city that secures the strategic corridor from Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley. This city should be doubling in size, as well as expanding into the E-1 quadrant that links it to Jerusalem; something that every Prime Minister since Rabin has promised to do.

PEACE NOW and other settlement-watch troublemakers purposefully confuse the international diplomatic community and inflame the dispute over settlements by doing a number of tricky things.

They conflate private home starts with government-initiated projects. They cynically count each announcement of planned construction as a new housing unit at every step of the approval processes, even though we’re talking about the same project at a static number of units.

They speciously count homes built in post-67 Jewish Jerusalem as settlement homes, including permanently-Israeli neighborhoods such as Neve Yaakov, Pisgat Zeev, Gilo, Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo. And they refuse to differentiate between homes in settlement blocs and those outside of them, instead referring to the temporary (and movable) security barrier as some sort of holy border beyond which Israeli life is a criminal venture.

Worse still, Peace Now and the international community present only one side of the West Bank settlement growth situation. They ignore (or encourage and even support) truly “massive” illegal and uncontrolled Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank, which is under Oslo-mandated Israeli control. The Civil Administration estimates that there are more than 35,000 illegal structures in the C areas.

The Land Protection Forum of Gush Adumim, which seeks to preserve Israeli control of the Jerusalem-Maale Adumim corridor (Area C), says that 3,000 Palestinians from areas A and B have moved into 1,200 illegal structures in this zone, 500 of which were set up very quickly over the past year, often with European Union funding and equipment.

Nobody in Peace Now or the Obama administration is protesting this unilateral attempt to establish facts on the ground as improper “prejudging of the outcome of negotiations.”

And so double standards and discombobulation regarding settlements continues.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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