from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Strange Bedfellows...on Israeli Settlement Policy

June 23, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

A recent research project I initiated on Israeli settlement policy seems to have created an unholy alliance. After the findings were criticized by both Yesha Council and PLO representatives, a new voice now entered this debate: Lara Friedman, Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now (APN). Here’s a generalization with which I am comfortable: whenever the PLO, Peace Now, and Yesha agree on anything, hold on to your wallet.

Two comments to begin with. First, the article she criticizes (in Foreign Affairs magazine) was not by me but by Uri Sadot and me. Nowhere does she even acknowledge that he exists, which is ungenerous and unkind, and unprofessional as well. Second, I would use the same terms to describe her inability to take up the argument exclusively on its merits; her suggestions that I was intentionally duplicitous are unworthy. But let’s take up the argument.

On APN’s official website, Ms. Friedman writes:

​Rather than bury Netanyahu with criticism for expanding settlements, Abrams argues, the world should praise ​him for his unrecognized settlement restraint.  The facts, Abrams insists, tell the story – facts that Abrams ​cherry-picks and spins to build a case that is pure fiction.

To back the accusation of data manipulation Friedman refers to a 2013 spike in settlement construction. It isn’t clear, however, whether she actually read our article through. In the same Washington Post piece to which Friedman links in her comment, Uri and I stated that "almost all of [the 2013] construction took place within the major settlement blocs." In order for readers not to have to take our word for it, the Washington Post even put up a link to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics website where readers could verify the figures themselves. (We relied exclusively on official, publicly available statistics; it’s worth noting that Friedman does not, apparently relying on numbers that Peace Now produces, just as the Yesha Council and for that matter the PLO and PA produce their own data.) Friedman stresses that relying on a single data point - the 2014 construction figures - is insufficient to determine a trend. She is correct, which is exactly why we compared construction figures over the past five years under Netanyahu to those under former prime ministers. What we discovered was a significant shift to construction inside the ’’settlement blocs."

To define what is a bloc we used one of the most conservative definitions available: A town of over 10,000 residents. This definition does not include most of Gush Etzion, for example, nor does it encompass small towns that are west of the Israeli security barrier in areas surrounding Ariel or Ma’ale Adumim. Our definition focuses narrowly on the densely populated urban areas, locations where construction of new buildings and neighborhoods does not constitute any significant "bloc expansion." These are precisely the dense areas that have been agreed in principle to be the subject of land swaps. What our study of the multi-year trend found was that construction inside these blocs was growing - just as construction was growing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - while construction in settlements outside the blocs was in decline.

Friedman raises another point on planning, saying plans are more important than construction starts:

new [construction] starts aren’t the best measure ...  given that starts are the culmination of a ... long approval ​process.  A better measure is the number of units being promoted through the various stages of the approval ​process.

She’s wrong.

Planning of new units is often irrelevant, and in some cases a bluff. Looking at the bottom line of construction starts is what really matters, and here’s why: In Israel, the prime minister is far from having absolute power over his government, which means a rogue housing minister from a rival political party can announce planning stages all he wants - and there’s nothing the prime minister can do about it. The actual approval of a construction project, however, has to go through an interagency planning committee, which is ultimately controlled by the Ministry of Interior, currently under Likud. Failure to understand this basic feature of Israeli governance structures is probably why Friedman’s analysis is so far off target. Note Tzipi Livni’s recent accusations against "arsonist" ministers inside the coalition who announced a host of construction plans only in order to scuttle negotiations with the Palestinians. Often, those plans do not actually materialize. The irony here is that many in the media and NGO world are so keen on blaming Israel for its settlement policy that they treat political bluffs and hyped announcements as facts, thereby actually empowering those who push for settlement expansion.

Theoretically, a housing minister who was a great proponent of settlement expansion and who feared that a peace agreement was close to being concluded could independently issue tenders for new construction all over the West Bank. The media and Peace Now, in turn, would issue their usual knee-jerk reaction, popular pressure would mount among Palestinians that would make Abbas once again "shut down the negotiations," and the only real choice Netanyahu would have in this process would be between dismantling his coalition or maintaining the status quo.

Friedman gets one thing right, though, when she echoes the following point we make in our article:​

The real negotiations – the difficult ones – will be over the “settlement blocs:” the number of blocs, their size and ​contours, the way they will be connected to Israel, and the land swaps that will offset them.

The final definition of these blocs remains a hotly contested issue that is still on the negotiating table. Our article did not suggest that construction patterns under Netanyahu indicate a rollback to the pre- "Six Day War" borders. It argued that construction patterns reflect a convergence toward de facto partition of the two populations, according to parameters unilaterally defined by Israel. While these unilateral parameters leave a minimum of 88 percent of the West Bank outside future Israeli sovereignty (because the security barrier encloses 12 percent of the West Bank) they still remain far from meeting Palestinian aspirations. Compare this to a decade or two ago, however, where 100 percent of the territory was in dispute, and you get a major change of policy by an Israeli government, and by the Likud party in particular. This major change, however, is one that the world is so far failing to acknowledge.

This lack of acknowledgement flows from a settlement obsession shared by the EU, the UN, the Obama administration, and Peace Now, as well as the Yesha Council. Friedman explains:

continued expansion of these ’blocs’ is equally if not more harmful to the two-state solution as construction in ​isolated settlements.

This is a terrible mistake. Refusing to distinguish between Yitzhar, Ariel and Gilo is a principled but unrealistic, politically blind approach that is typical of both far right and far left ideologues. The "principle" is that the "1967 borders" are sanctified by international law, which is wrong; there are no "1967 borders," just the 1949 armistice lines. The vast majority of Israelis draw a clear distinction between the ’’blocs’’ and isolated settlements, and stubbornly ignoring that fact risks the loss of a critically important constituency for any future agreement (however unlikely such an agreement seems to be, and in my view is, today). Both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have moved past this obstructive approach, and have accepted the idea of equitable swaps. That is, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and the vast majority of Israelis, have understood that the major blocs will in any "final status agreement" remain with Israel and will be the basis for land swaps. Construction in those blocs does not change the "peace map" at all.

Perhaps it is also time for Peace Now to move beyond outdated (and biased) ideas of romanticized justice and beyond visceral hostility to settlers, and to look pragmatically for ways to promote a more peaceful existence for the people they purport to represent.