Opinion

Netanyahu’s New Trump-Appeasing Bluff

Netanyahu promised the White House 'restrained construction' that wouldn't stray outside the ‘built-up area’ of settlements. That's an endlessly elastic term.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with President Donald Trump at the White House following their meeting. February 15, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Donald Trump at the White House following their meeting. February 15, 2016. Prime Minister Netanyahu's Twitter

During last week’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Netanyahu attempted, with considerable success, to satisfy everybody. On the one hand, the government approved the establishment of a new settlement deep in the West Bank and was updated on the promotion of 5,700 housing units in the settlements. On the other hand it announced a policy of “restrained construction” – which does not surpass the footprint of existing settlements – in order not to upset the White House.

The truth is that Netanyahu is bluffing; the new policy does not represent restraint, but rather it gives a green light to a construction surge that will severely hinder the possibility of a two state solution.

First, there is no restraint at all in the new policy guidelines. According to reports from the cabinet meeting, the policy is to build within the existing built-up area where possible; where this is not permissible, to built in areas adjacent to them; and in cases where different constraints make the scenarios above impossible, new construction is allowed on lands "as close as possible" to the existing built-up areas.

If it’s permissible to build in the built-up area, adjacent to it and close to it – then, in practice, it’s possible to build everywhere.

Palestinian schoolgirls walk with a donkey as the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, is seen in the background November 13, 2013.
Reuters

Secondly, even if we assume that the government truly intends to build only in the built-up area, it could still dramatically expand the footprint of settlements, as there is no clear definition to the term “built-up area.”

To explain what could be considered as a “built-up area,” imagine the area of a settlement as the area of your hand:

Place your hand on a hard surface, splay your fingers wide apart, and take a pen and trace your handprint. Your handprint represents the built-up area of a settlement.

Draw another line connecting your fingers to your thumb. This line could also represent the built-up area of a settlement.

Draw a circle around the handprint, leaving a few inches of empty space between this new line and the handprint inside. This line represents the fence or the security road surrounding the settlement. It, too, could represent a settlement’s footprint, or its built-up area, as it signifies the land taken by the settlement de facto, even if it is not entirely built on.

Now add another much larger circle around the previous circle. This is the municipal area of the settlement. The settlers might argue that construction within this line also does not represent an expansion of settlements beyond its existing boundaries.

To make things clear, the built-up area of settlements, based on the first and second definitions above, ranges between 10,000 to 20,000 acres (between 0.7% and 1.4% of the West Bank). The fenced area of settlements makes up about 42,000 acres (approximately 3%), and the jurisdiction of settlements amounts to 135,000 acres (approximately 10% of the West Bank’s territory). 

An Israeli flag is seen in front of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim.
AP

The debate around these lines has led previous American administrations into the trap of endless and pointless negotiations over how to decide what it means to build “inside” settlements. Former U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer recently attested to the long hours he spent with Brig. Gen. Baruch Spiegel, representing Ariel Sharon’s government, in an effort to determine what the area of settlements really was.

Finally, the question of settlement construction is not just a question of territory. Israel already controls 60% of the West Bank, known as area C, and the Palestinians have no permission to build in this area without Israeli approvals. About half of the land in area C is considered “state land” or “survey land”, which Palestinians cannot use for any purpose, let alone construction. Add to that military zones, nature reserves and lands expropriated for public use or seized for security needs, and we get a map of Israeli control over the majority of the West Bank. Building additional homes in one settlement or another has almost no effect on this wider issue of power and territory.

Looking at the possibility of a two state solution, the greatest damage that settlement construction causes is to the level of complication and difficulty involved in undoing it. Most significantly, the number of settlers Israel will need to evacuate within the framework of an agreement. Any construction in the settlements – even if built only on top of existing construction and without taking an additional inch of land – will add new settlers that Israel will eventually have to evacuate. The deciding factor in the question of the two state solution will be how many settlers Israel will need to evacuate, not how many acres will be evacuated.

Let us not be misled by Netanyahu: He and his government continue to oppose the two state solution and are acting in order to make it impossible. Settlement construction has never stopped. The talk about “settlement restraint” is aimed at taming criticism - and leading us astray.

Hagit Ofran directs Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project.