Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was a deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration. Uri Sadot is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Last week’s meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama must have been tense. Two days before the meeting, the president publicly accused Israel of more “aggressive settlement construction . . . than we’ve seen in a very long time.” Only hours before the meeting, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) published a report that cited a massive increase in settlement construction during 2013.
But the president had his facts wrong, and a careful reading of the CBS data proves it. The pace is not “aggressive,” and almost all of the construction took place within the major settlement “blocs” — areas that past negotiations have recognized would remain part of Israel (to be compensated for with land swaps).
The figures are online for anyone to see (the Web site is in Hebrew). Israel built 2,534 housing units last year in the West Bank. Of these, about a quarter (694) were in two major blocs near Jerusalem, Giv’at Ze’ev and Betar Illit, and 537 were in two other major blocs, Modiin Illit and Ma’ale Adumim, also near Jerusalem. These four, which will remain part of Israel, account for half of last year’s construction. They are not isolated outposts but instead are towns with populations in the tens of thousands, near the Green Line, as the 1949 armistice line and 1967 border are known.
The critical figure to monitor is the number of Israeli houses built outside such blocs in areas intended for the future state of Palestine. What the CBS data tell us on that question is that only 908 units were built last year in Israeli townships of 10,000 residents or fewer. And most of those units were built in settlement towns that are part of the major blocs. Units built in areas that would become part of Palestine number in the hundreds — and likely in the low hundreds. Given that about 90,000 Israelis live in the West Bank outside the blocs, that is approximately the rate of natural growth. So much for the president’s claim of “aggressive construction.”
In fact, what the much-cited CBS data reveal is that Netanyahu’s track record on this issue is more restrained than that of Ehud Barak, the last Labor Party prime minister, whose government approved three times more new houses in small settlements in 2000 than Netanyahu did last year. In 2002, Ariel Sharon’s government approved the construction of 960 new units — more than Netanyahu’s 908 in 2013 — not long before Sharon decided to evacuate Gaza.
Measuring construction is complicated. A recent study the two of us conducted, using voter registration data, suggested more significant increases in settlements outside the blocs. The CBS report measures official approvals for construction, which may be the best indicator of Israeli government policy. It appears from the construction patterns that, under Netanyahu, Israel is slowly moving toward preparation for the two-state solution: Build energetically in the parts Israel will keep but restrain construction outside them in areas that will become Palestine.
Why doesn’t the U.S. president understand this, and why doesn’t Netanyahu explain it more clearly? The irony is that Netanyahu can’t publicly admit this policy because it would alienate his right-leaning political base. The settler lobby, which has a strong footing in the Likud Party, constantly criticizes Netanyahu for not permitting “sufficient” construction. To placate them, it appears that Netanyahu’s government has boosted construction in the major settlement blocs as well as in Jerusalem, which in turns buys him flak from the Israeli left, the Palestinians — and the U.S. president.
International coverage of the recent report entirely overlooked these nuances. A New York Times editorial flatly stated that “2,534 housing units were begun in 2013 compared with 1,133 the previous year.” The BBC echoed the report, citing “a large increase in the pace of new settlement construction in the West Bank in 2013 over the year before.” But a more careful reading of the tea leaves suggests that it is the settlers who should be worried by these recent trends in de facto government policy, rather than supporters of partition into two states.
Too often the debate over settlement construction is a proxy for other positions — toward Israel, the two-state solution or the Netanyahu government. But the numbers tell their own story, and that is the one that deserves the most attention.