(June 2, 2016 / JNS) One report says the Obama administration will soon get “tougher” with Israel over an alleged surge of Jewish settlement construction. Another report says Israel is currently halting new settlement construction. What’s the real story?
The Associated Press (AP), citing three anonymous American diplomats, reported last month that the U.S. plans to sign a new Middle East Quartet document aligning its criticism of Israel’s construction policies with those of mediator partners including the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. The document, according to the AP report, “is sure to infuriate Israel.”
But just weeks after the initial report, recordings of a closed-door meeting between Israeli Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant and members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations revealed that the Israeli government’s current policy is not to build new Jewish housing units in the settlements—and that Galant abides by that policy.
“Basically, I am following the policy of the government, and it is that we are not building in Judea and Samaria,” Galant said, Haaretz reported. “But I am not the only one with the ability to build. There are private people and other segments of the government that work according to different ministers.”
Amid the conflicting reports, what’s the actual situation on the ground regarding Israeli settlement contraction? First, here’s an overview of the terminology and dynamics at play.
The “West Bank” is the area of land located west of the Jordan River, also known by its biblical name of “Judea and Samaria.” The international community mostly uses the term “West Bank,” the Israeli government uses “Judea and Samaria,” and others prefer “disputed territories.” (The policy of this news service is to refer to Jewish areas of the disputed territories as Judea and Samaria, and Palestinian Authority-administered territories as the West Bank.) Judea and Samaria’s Jewish neighborhoods are referred to as towns, communities, or settlements—highlighting the complexity of the situation. There are approximately 350,000 Jews living in the settlements, not counting the disputed areas of eastern Jerusalem.
The settlements, which comprise about 3 percent of the land in Judea and Samaria, are not monolithic. The most significant settlement growth is in the suburban areas of the Jordan Valley, close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These settlements include towns such as Ma’ale Adumim, located less than five miles from Jerusalem and containing a population of about 40,000 people.
There are also larger “settlement blocs”—among the best-known blocs are Ariel and Gush Etzion—all of which contain core towns surrounded by smaller villages. Jews have been living in Gush Etzion since the 1920s. Today, the Gush Etzion bloc has 22 settlements and approximately 70,000 people. Ariel, established in the 1970s, has approximately 20,000 residents.
There are also “outlying settlements,” which are small communities (up to roughly 150 people) usually situated along the Jordan River, and “outposts,” which are makeshift illegal communities established on private Palestinian land. Outposts make up less than 1 percent of the Israeli settlements.
U.S. policy—regardless of the president’s party—has always opposed settlement construction.
“The first settlement in the 70s was a bone of contention between the U.S. and Israeli governments,” Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum think tank, told JNS.org. “All American governments have been displeased.”
Yet the dispute seemed to calm over time through various agreements. The 1995 Oslo II agreement broke the disputed territories into three areas: A, B, and C. Areas A and B are controlled by the Palestinian Authority and Area C falls under Israeli jurisdiction. According to Oslo II, there are no prohibitions or restrictions regarding Israeli construction in Area C.
Later—according to Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank and former deputy national security adviser in the administration of president George W. Bush—an informal agreement between Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 allowed construction to take place only in specific settlement blocs and only based on “natural growth.”
“[The 2004 agreement stipulated] no new settlements, no incentives to move to the settlements, and while settlements could grow in population, no geographic expansion,” Abrams told JNS.org, noting that it is his understanding that this is still Israel’s policy.
But when President Barack Obama took office, his administration did an about-face. Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009. Two days later, he appointed special envoy for Middle East peace George Mitchell, who immediately called for an absolute freeze of settlement construction—including in Jewish neighborhoods in parts of Jerusalem formerly controlled by Jordan—as a precondition for even low-level peace talks.
“The Bush administration’s policy was that settlement expansion was unhelpful. This administration has called it illegitimate. This was a terrible mistake.…The result has been to make [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations almost impossible,” Abrams said.
Today, said Abrams, “it is hard to figure out what is going on” in Judea and Samaria, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is caught between the settlement enterprise’s supporters and critics.
“Netanyahu has been keeping the pressure against expansion beyond [Israel’s West Bank] security barrier,” Abrams said. “Many in the settler movement are angry at him for this, but he also gets no thanks from the Obama administration or the [political] left in Israel.”
Pipes said he is under the impression that settlement construction has been limited for at least the last decade. Those who live in the settlements say they see construction going on, but mostly at existing houses and in existing neighborhoods.
Uri Pilichowski, a resident of Mitzpe Yericho in the Binyamin region of Samaria, took a picture of a home expansion in his area last month and posted it on Facebook along with a message about solidifying the Jewish presence beyond the pre-1967 lines.
“Ever since I got here a year and a half ago, they told us they are going to build a new neighborhood. I saw a guy selling apartments already, so I imagine that counts for something,” Pilichowski told JNS.org.
American-Israeli journalist Josh Hasten, who lives in Elazar in the Gush Etzion bloc and works with the Hatzalah emergency medical response organization in Judea and Samaria, said observers should differentiate between new building and new contracts.
“If you see new building, that doesn’t mean new approvals,” he said.
But Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born Israeli historian and author of the 2007 book “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements,” said every house built in a settlement is an “anti-Zionist act.”
“Every single settlement, every house, has been built with the goal of it being permanent,” said Gorenberg. “The idea to build the settlements was a project of the [Israeli] Labor [party] government in 1967, and it was continued by Likud to make a statement about what was going to remain ours for historical and strategic reasons.”
Gorenberg argued that it is incorrect to differentiate between building in one part of the disputed territories or another. While the failed Camp David Accords of 2000 mulled the possibility of land swaps—that Israel would keep a certain number of acres of land in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza in exchange for giving up land in sovereign Israel—no agreement was ever reached on what pieces of land those would be.
“When someone says, ‘We will build on this land because it will obviously be part of land swaps,’ to whom is this obvious?” asked Gorenberg. “It might be obvious to you (the Israelis), but it is not obvious to the other side, and you are preempting negotiations.”
Gorenberg said that while Israel expresses a desire for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its policy cannot be one of words, but of actions.
“Every additional room built and settler that moves in makes it more difficult for Israel to take the steps necessary to reach a two-state agreement,” Gorenberg said. “Any government really committed to reaching a two-state agreement would want for its own sake to stop all construction and show it is strategically making the preparations necessary for evacuating at least some of the settlers.”
Abrams said that if Israelis “want a two-state solution, separation from the Palestinians, why are Israelis moving into areas that are not going to be part of Israel? That is a tough thing to defend in the international community.”
Pipes disagrees, saying that he believes building in Judea and Samaria puts pressure on the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table before evacuation of those lands would become a strategic impossibility. He also questioned why building in areas that might one day belong to the Palestinians would be an obstacle to peace.
“There is no reason to preclude Jews from living on the West Bank any more than there is [a reason to preclude] Muslims from living in Israel,” said Pipes. “Israel is nearly one-fifth Muslim and no one has a problem with that.…It is obnoxious to think that no Jews could live [in the settlements], especially with the Jewish ancient historical connection to that land.”
Either way, according to Abrams and Gorenberg, it is unlikely that the forthcoming Middle East Quartet document—produced by negotiators that have been largely irrelevant for the last several years—will have any tangible effect. Rather, they said, it will serve to further frustrate already-strained relations between the Obama administration and Israel.
For his part, Pilichowski, an American immigrant to Israel, said he thinks the U.S. has a right to be vocal about its opinions on settlements because of the funds and other support it gives to Israel.
“I think Israel should take America’s thoughts into consideration and address its concerns,” Pilichowski said.
But when push comes to shove, does the sovereign Israeli government need to listen?
“No,” said Pilichowski. “I don’t think so.”
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.
***Full disclosure: Josh Hasten is an occasional freelance contributor for JNS.org.