Domestic critics and the international community have for years pilloried Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for supporting Israeli settlements – settlements that are entrenching an Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that is widely viewed, by nearly everyone except the Israeli right-wing, as the root cause of the growing violence plaguing Israelis today.
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Netanyahu, of course, has a very different explanation for the violence – anti-Semitism and incitement, and nothing else, especially not the occupation nor the settlements.
To bolster his case, Netanyahu, who has for decades positioned himself publicly as a champion of the settlers (most recently boasting to a Likud audience that settler numbers had increased by 120,000 since his taking office in 2009), last week tried to turn the tables on the critics, claiming that settlements cannot be the cause of violence, since their growth has actually slowed during his time in office, compared to his predecessors. He probably based this claim on a statistic highlighted in a report in Haaretz, according to which the average number of new housing units built in settlements in the West Bank per year since 2009 has been lower than during the preceding 20 years.
But beware: a single statistic taken in isolation always obscures far more than it reveals.
So has settlement growth really slowed under Netanyahu? To begin with, the statistic on new housing starts ignores East Jerusalem, an area in which for the past six years settlement construction has been at its highest annual level since 2000. Much of this construction alters potential future borders, in significant ways, between Israel and Palestine; a new settlement called Givat Hamatos, approved under Netanyahu but not yet constructed, could be a potent deal-breaker.
Likewise, Netanyahu has outdone his recent predecessors with respect to settlement activity in the heart of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods. Virtually from the moment he took office, with the 2009 approval of a new settlement in Sheikh Jarrah, through last week’s settler takeover in Silwan, under Netanyahu the settler enterprise in these volatile areas has boomed.
Another problem is methodological. Netanyahu has been prime minister for longer than anyone since the legendary David Ben Gurion. Comparing only two out of his three full terms in office is misleading. If we compare his entire time in office, including the 1990's, or if we compare his last tenure alone to the other tenures in recent years, Netanyahu has built more in settlements than any of his recent predecessors (except for Ehud Barak in 2000).
The exception was – no surprise – his second term (2009-2012), notable for the Obama Administration’s 2009 settlement-focused peace efforts and the subsequent 2010 10-month “moratorium,” during which Netanyahu agreed to hold off on new settlement planning and approvals.
In contrast, during Netanyahu’s 2013-2015 term, new construction starts in West Bank settlements have spiked, reaching a higher level than under any government since 2000. This spike was driven by a surge in planning and tenders following the end of the moratorium, and by the Kerry-led 2013 peace effort, which was accompanied every step of the way by new settlement announcements and approvals. Based on data for the first half of this year, and barring a deliberate slow-down, this trend can be expected to continue in 2015.
The statistic also omits key data about new settlement construction. According to Peace Now research, between 2009 and 2014 settlers built more than 1000 new units illegally – “phantom units” uncounted by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, some of which Netanyahu subsequently legalized. And under Netanyahu, new construction starts in settlements located east of the route of Israel’s separation barrier, in settlements that nobody believes could become part of Israel under a negotiated deal, increased from around 20% to 35% of the total, according to Peace Now data.
Finally, the statistic says nothing about support for settlements unrelated to construction starts, for instance the investment in the process before building begins. Netanyahu has advanced planning for more than 18,000 new units in West Bank settlements (almost half to be built east of the barrier), and more than 12,000 units in East Jerusalem, based on Peace Now research. (How long it takes for a plan to be approved and for building work to start depends very much on the government’s eagerness; it can vary between a few months and many years.)
Netanyahu approved a new settlement in Hebron, in a large Palestinian structure taken over by settlers. Netanyahu has confiscated large swathes of the West Bank, including 490 acres to facilitate the legalization of outposts and 990 acres to benefit the Etzion settlement bloc, a confiscation unprecedented in scope since the 1980's.
Netanyahu has also built major new infrastructure to serve settlements, including a highway to give settlers living south of Jerusalem direct access to the city’s center, routed through the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem, and an interchange southeast of Ramallah, to facilitate travel for settlers living in the West Bank heartland. And Netanyahu is actively working to push Palestinians out of Area C – the area of the West Bank under full Israeli control and home to most settlements – via home demolitions, actual and threatened, and coercive displacement targeting, most notably, the village of Sussia and Bedouins living in the Jordan Valley and in the area planned for the settlement of E-1.
Statistics can help track specific aspects of Israel settlement policy, but like any statistics, when cherry-picked they obscure more than they reveal. In this case, a single statistic is being exploited to obscure Netanyahu’s track record of relentlessly promoting settlements. The totality of the facts tells the real story – a story of a long history of deep and active support for settlement expansion, checked only intermittently and temporarily, for tactical political purposes.
Lara Friedman is the Director of Policy & Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now. Hagit Ofran is the Director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch (Israel).