Explained: How Big an Obstacle Are Israeli Settlements to Peace?

Trump recently said that advancing settlement construction is unhelpful for peace, but which settlements exactly he was referring to is open for interpretation.

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit is seen in the background while a protester waves a Palestinian flag during a protest against Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bilin.
AP

If his latest statements are any indication, U.S. President Donald Trump may be having second thoughts about how unharmful Israel’s West Bank settlement project is to the peace process.

In an interview published on Friday with the Israeli daily Israel Hayom, Trump described himself as “not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace,” and urged the government to “act reasonably.”

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“There is limited remaining territory,” Trump said. “Every time you take land for a settlement, less territory remains.”

In a statement issued through the White House a week earlier, he said that although settlements per se were not an impediment to peace, “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

America’s unpredictable new president may be a bit more forthcoming about where he draws the line when he meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. Meanwhile, his statements have been interpreted as a green light for Israel to continue building within the settlement blocs, though not beyond them.

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Settlement blocs refer to the larger Jewish population centers located in the West Bank, many of which are close to the Green Line, or the borders of the 1949 armistice agreement. Many of them fall on the Israeli side of the incomplete separation barrier Israel began building nearly 15 years ago during the second Palestinian uprising.

Settlements map

An estimated 450,000-500,000 Israelis live across the Green Line including the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. A widespread consensus has emerged that any future agreement on a two-state solution should include some of the settlement blocs (anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of the area beyond the Green Line) within Israel’s permanent border. Some past and present Israeli officials cite security rationale, while others say that uprooting so many people from their homes is not a viable option. Israel, in exchange, would agree to swap a more-or-less equivalent amount of its own land with a future Palestinian state.

In 2004, President George W. Bush sent a letter to Israel saying it would be “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Many interpreted that as a green light for Israel to build in the settlement blocs, as they do Trump’s recent statement. The Obama administration, by contrast, did not distinguish between the big blocs and the isolated settlements, and as far as it was concerned, all settlement construction was equally bad.

Settlement facts info

So what are we talking about when we talk about the settlement blocs? 

Here’s where it gets tricky. When people talk about the settlement blocs, they usually mean those areas that are expected to become part of Israel under a two-state agreement. Unfortunately, though, there is little consensus about what those areas are or should be. As Netanyahu once famously said: “My blocs aren’t the blocs of the left.”

About 80 percent of the settlers live in the following eight major settlement blocs seen as candidates for Israeli annexation: Gush Etzion, Givat Ze’ev, Modi’in Ilit, Western Samaria, Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Shaked and Kedumim. Altogether, they comprise about four percent of the West Bank.

Some hold that only settlement blocs situated right near the Green Line, whose incorporation into Israel would not affect the viability and contiguity of a Palestinian state, should be annexed. Others believe the main consideration should be minimizing the number of settlers who would have to vacate their homes. That is why they support annexing settlement blocs that stretch deep into the West Bank, even if parts of the new Palestinian state would be cut off from one another as result.

Which settlement blocs is there consensus about?

The Geneva Initiative of 2003, a civil society effort of prominent Israelis and Palestinians, provides a good indication. According to the basic principles of that agreement, which included land swaps of 2.2 percent, the settlement blocs of Gush Etzion (excluding Efrat), Ma’aleh Adumim (excluding the controversial adjacent area known as “E1”), Modi’in Ilit and Givat Ze’ev would become part of Israel.

Another indication of where consensus lies is in the proposals exchanged by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas five years later, as part of the Annapolis plan. Olmert proposed annexing all the major settlement blocs (about 5.9 percent of the West Bank territory), in exchange for 5.2 percent of Israeli territory. In his counteroffer, Abbas proposed giving Israel 1.6 percent of the West Bank in exchange for 2 percent of Israeli territory. Abbas was not willing to include Ma’aleh Adumim or Givat Ze’ev in that 1.6 percent, but he did agree to Modi’in Ilit and Gush Etzion (though not Efrat).

It is noteworthy that Abbas was willing to give Israel the two largest settlements in the West Bank, both of which are ultra-Orthodox: Betar Illit (part of Gush Etzion) and Modi’in Ilit. Roughly one-third of all the settlers live in these two settlements today.

So does that mean the city of Ariel isn’t part of the consensus?

Correct. Even though Israel recently built a big university there, there is not widespread agreement that Ariel should be included in Israel in a future two-state agreement. Olmert proposed including Ariel for the same reason many Israelis believe it belongs inside: It’s one of the biggest settlements, with close to 20,000 residents. But Ariel stretches 13 miles deep into the West Bank, and its annexation would cut right into the heart of the Palestinian state. The fact that there is not widespread consensus about Ariel has not prevented the government, however, from approving many new housing units there in recent years.

But certainly Ma’aleh Adumim and Efrat are part of the consensus.

It’s true that both Ma’aleh Adumim and Efrat are big settlements and located pretty close the Green Line. But there is not widespread consensus about them – at least on the Palestinian side – because it is feared their annexation could threaten the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.

Ma’aleh Adumim includes the area known as E1, which connects the settlement to Jerusalem. Palestinians fear its annexation would partly cut off the northern West Bank from the southern part. Unlike most of the other settlements in Gush Etzion, Efrat is situated on the eastern side of Route 60 – the only major north-south highway in the West Bank. There are concerns it would encroach on the development of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. For that reason, it was not included in the Geneva Initiative.

Would it be fair to assume that most of the settlement construction activity of recent years has taken place in the big settlement blocs?

Not at all. According to Haaretz contributor Shaul Arieli, one of Israel’s leading experts on the demarcation of the future border, 50 percent of the new homes built in the West Bank in recent years were outside the settlement blocs, even though 75 percent of the population growth was inside the settlement blocs. This is no coincidence, he says. Rather, it is part of a deliberate government policy to spread out the Jewish population in the West Bank so that the two-state solution becomes less viable.

The government recently approved 2,500 new housing starts in the West Bank. Were they in the settlement blocs?

Most of them were, so Trump would probably be pleased. But the approvals also included a group of 100 housing units in the settlement of Beit El, which is not part of any of the big blocs. The American president is not likely to complain about that anytime soon: After all, his ambassador-designate, David Friedman, heads the organization that raises money for Beit El in the United States, and Trump himself has written a $10,000 check for the benefit of this particular settlement.