The Settlement Enterprise Has Not Blocked a Two-state Solution

Don’t believe the illusion Benjamin Netanyahu has created. Unfortunately, Israel invests enormous resources in an unfeasible goal.

Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli
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Settlement construction in Ramat Shlomo, October 2013.
Settlement construction in Ramat Shlomo, October 2013.Credit: Reuters
Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won two great victories in the battle for the public’s and international community’s minds. Both are false victories for which Israel is paying an expensive and unnecessary price.

The first was achieved in Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech in June 2009 after he became prime minister again. In the address, Netanyahu gave the impression he supported a two-state solution.

Almost everyone ignored that Netanyahu was still trapped by the belief that a “PLO state” 15 kilometers from Tel Aviv was an existential threat, as he wrote in his 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations.” Some Israelis — and all world leaders — have sobered up, but the severe damage because of Israel’s insincerity in implementing a two-state solution has been done.

The second victory is almost total, and certainly much sadder. Most of the Israeli public and the international community believe that the settlement enterprise has become so established under Netanyahu that a two-state solution is impossible. But this conclusion has no basis in fact.

Figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that during Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 term the number of Israelis living in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) grew at an annual rate of 5 percent — an additional 69,000 people over five years.

This rate is almost double the rate for Israel proper, but 75 percent of the new West Bank residents chose to live in the large settlement blocs — exactly the same percentage as before Netanyahu was elected. (At the end of 2013, 285,214 people lived in the settlement blocs out of 354,308 in all the settlements.)

During the Annapolis peace talks in 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed to annex — as part of land swaps — these settlement blocs, whose area is no greater than 5 percent of the West Bank. If we add to them East Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods — nearly 1 percent of the West Bank where some 200,000 Jews live — then with a swap of only 6 percent of the West Bank, Israel can preserve its sovereignty over (and the homes of) 35 of every 40 Israelis living over the Green Line.

These figures show that despite the investment of tens of billions to expand the Jewish presence outside the settlement blocs, the Palestinian dominance over 94 percent of the West Bank has been preserved. In these areas there are 26 Palestinians for every Jew, and they own private land there too.

‘Unwilling’ ultra-Orthodox settlers

Other numbers reveal another interesting — and little known — fact. Despite the efforts of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi to prove that it has many nonreligious partners in the settlement enterprise, the number of nonreligious people moving to the settlements in those five years is trivial. Most of the contribution to Israeli population growth in the territories comes from the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim — 45 percent. And almost all of them live in two large ultra-Orthodox cities: Modi’in Ilit and Betar Ilit, which have grown 39 percent in the five years.

The surge in Haredim moving to those cities stems from a lack of housing in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak and makes them — in their own words — “settlers against their will.” By comparison, two smaller nonreligious cities, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel (Modi’i Ilit has 5.3 times the number of residents as Ariel) recorded population growth a shade under the rate for Israel proper over those years.

The number of Israelis who were added to the settlements outside the large settlement blocs in those years was tiny in absolute terms: only 17,795. This figure is smaller than the number of people added to the Israeli city of Modi’in during that period.

This growth in the settler population, attributed to the settlements affiliated with the Gush Emunim movement, largely reflects voters of Likud and Habayit Hayehudi. In a number of these communities there was a significant population increase: Talmon grew 29 percent, Itamar 30 percent, Har Bracha 50 percent, Yitzhar 41 percent, Ateret 71 percent and Har Gilo 163 percent. But many of these communities saw no significant population growth, and a few of them even saw their populations fall (Kiryat Arba, Rimonim, Ma’aleh Amos, Hagai, Kochav Hashahar and Carmel).

The settlements of the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea region, which Netanyahu and his ministers often use as an example of the settlements’ importance for security needs (a baseless claim), are the last priority for allocating resources. The population increased by only 216 there during those five years, only 3.6 percent, even lower than population growth for Israel proper.

About a third of these communities, all of them nonreligious, saw a fall in their populations; for example, Almog, Argaman, Tomer and Na’omi. The biggest drop was in Ma’aleh Efraim — a 26.6-percent fall.

Even in East Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods there is no visible influx of residents, despite Bennett’s declarations about “Judaizing Jerusalem.” Over the past five years the number of these residents grew by only about 5,000, (and many of them are Arabs). This reflects growth under the Israeli average. Given these numbers, if Jewish population growth in Jerusalem remains stable, within a decade the city will have an Arab majority.

Blocking Palestinian contiguity

The trends described here are no surprise for anyone following the settlement enterprise. We were never even close to achieving a Jewish majority in the West Bank — neither in terms of land ownership nor control of territory — because there was never the demographic potential or legal basis.

The “achievement” of building a Jewish-settlement system separate from the Palestinian one merely blocks the contiguity of the Arab population. Dozens of small isolated settlements on the hilltops depend on roads built on a completely illogical diplomatic, security, geographic and economic framework, as well as a heightened military presence.

With the help of these settlements, Israel has achieved control over the Palestinians and prevented the natural development of their communities. Israel has maintained this situation for decades via enormous budgets that are only growing.

True, this threat is not great enough to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, but it is expected to raise the price Israel will have to pay for a solution to the conflict, whether agreed on or dictated. Netanyahu, Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman are working to strengthen the trend of expanding the settlements outside the large settlement blocs. (The small isolated settlement of Nokdim where Lieberman lives grew 93 percent over those five years. A new multilane road connects it to Jerusalem.)

Over the past two years, under the leadership of Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, housing starts have actually been concentrated in the isolated settlements outside the settlement blocs — 40 percent of housing starts in the settlements, compared with 20 percent until two years ago.

But remember that land swaps of any size would damage the prospects of some kibbutzim and moshavim in Israel proper near the Green Line. They would lose agricultural land — and economic resources — as part of land swaps. There is a direct connection: Growth in the size of the settlement blocs to be annexed would increase the damage to kibbutzim and moshavim.

Hence the price Israel is paying for the illusion. Israel invests enormous resources for an unfeasible goal lacking any Zionist, diplomatic, economic, social or moral logic. The price of the campaign that Netanyahu and his cabinet are conducting for the settlements is like slaughtering the Israeli economy with a dull knife, along with its relations with the United States, Europe and Arab countries that have signed peace deals with Israel. (As Minister Yuval Steinitz has said: “We have doubled the budgets for Judea and Samaria.”)

Israelis hear endless empty slogans and “peace proposals” that distort reality. And this consciousness building, even if it is false, determines political opinions.

We are left with the separation between the majority of Israelis living in the settlement blocs — which cover only a few percent of the area of the West Bank — and the Palestinians, who are the vast majority in the West Bank and the owners of a clear majority of the land. Israelis must demand that this separation become an official separation, one essential for Israel’s future.

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