With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks about to begin again, the debate over West Bank settlements is bound to heat up -- in public and at the negotiating table. The argument, however, involves not just opinions on what policies are right, but disagreement over basic facts. Is most construction now in the major blocs and in Jerusalem -- areas that Israel is believed likely to keep in any final agreement -- or is there substantial growth as well in settlements beyond the security fence, which would likely be part of a new Palestinian state? In whose benefit is time ticking, anyway?
Given the constant focus on the settlements -- not least in Washington and European capitals -- one would expect simple and forthright answers to these questions. But getting the facts turns out to be as great a challenge as settling on the best policy. There is no agreement on population growth rates in the settlements, nor on how many Israelis live outside the "major blocs." The ambiguity around this important question has allowed interested parties to fill in the blanks with answers that best suit their political narrative.
The numbers given by the Palestinian Authority, which show linear population growth over the past decade, reported that there were a staggering 544,000 Israeli settlers in 2012, which is 9 percent of Israel's Jewish population. Those figures, however, do not distinguish between Israelis who live east of the security fence and those who live in Jerusalem or in the major blocs that at Camp David, in the Annapolis peace summit, and in every proposed peace plan end up as part of Israel.