Last week, Elliot Abrams and Uri Sadot co-authored yet another defense of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s settlement policy. At the heart of their case is this assertion:
Israel's actual settlement construction pace has reached a historical low. Only 507 housing units were approved for construction by Netanyahu’s government in the first six months of 2014, a 71.9 percent decrease from the same period in 2013…
What does the data actually say?
First, a correction: The numbers Abrams and Sadot cite, taken from data recently released by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics Abrams (CBS) – the same data used by Peace Now in its analyses – refer to units on which construction began during the period in question (“new starts”). “New starts” is not synonymous with “approved for new construction”, and the difference is not merely semantic. To get the full picture of the Israeli government’s settlement policy, you have to look at (1) approvals, which pave the way for tenders in the medium- and long-term; (2) tenders, which put new construction projects up for public bids; (3) marketing, which involves the awarding of tenders and signing of construction agreements, paving the way for new construction in the near term; and (4) new starts, which are the culmination of the previous three steps. It seems bizarre for Abrams to have made such a mistake, since he is on the record differentiating between approvals and starts (and trying to make the case that approvals are not at all important, despite the evidence of decades of non-stop settlement construction, made possible through such approvals).
Second, as my Peace Now colleague Hagit Ofran explains in her superb analysis of the new CBS numbers (and documents in a helpful table), the CBS data show that the number of new starts in settlements for the first half of 2014 is not an “historical low.” Rather, it is on par with this same period in preceding years, with the exceptions of the outlier years of 2010 and 2013. The partial moratorium of 2010 led to a very low number of starts for the first half of that year. The end of that moratorium in November 2010 was followed by a surge in settlement tenders, leading to a spike in new starts in 2013. This spike is still evident today, with ongoing construction in settlements across the West Bank, in projects started in 2013. Indeed, as I noted in my response to the previous Abrams/Sadot article in defense of settlements,
The  spike was so large that even if not a single additional settlement unit was started for the rest of 2014 [after the end of just the first quarter of the year]…the annual average for new starts in 2013 and 2014 would be almost 1,400 units – well above the number in 2012 (1,133 units) and preceding years.
Third, as Hagit documents, the CBS states explicitly that the data for settlement starts are only partial, due to the “low quality of data obtained from some of the settlements” and because the data do not include a number of categories of construction, including “housing projects of which the CBS was not notified by way of construction permits” and illegal construction. This means the number of starts for the first half of 2014 will go up as the CBS gets more information.
And lastly (on this point), there is this: By focusing solely on new starts and ignoring approvals, tenders, and marketing, Abrams and Sadot omit important data that offer a far more complete picture of Netanyahu’s settlement policy, including what can be expected in the coming period. Hagit points out,
…data collected by Calcalist newspaper [a business/financial paper published by Yediot Ahronot], showed that at the first 7 months of 2014, 2,299 housing units were marketed by the Israel Land Authority in settlements which was an increase of 866% compared to the same period in 2013… The spike in the marketing of units in settlement is likely to be followed by a spike in construction starts in a few months, and we expect to see an increase in construction in the coming months.
Turning to another argument, a core argument in Abrams' and Sadot's defense of Netanyahu's settlement policy is this:
His government's pattern in recent years is clear: build energetically in the major settlement blocks and in Jerusalem, while restraining growth beyond the West Bank security fence in areas that may become part of a future Palestinian state.
At the same time, they also cite this data point regarding the new CBS numbers:
...about one-third of those [units] being built [are] inside the major blocks that it is understood Israel will keep in any final status agreement.
Or, stated differently, about two-thirds of new settlement starts are in areas of the West Bank that nobody seriously believes Israel will be able to retain in a final status agreement -- an inconvenient fact that directly contradicts the previous argument. And even if the numbers did support that argument, the implicit point of the argument -- that construction inside the blocs is consistent with a commitment to a two-state solution -- is fundamentally flawed. As I noted in my response to the previous Abrams/Sadot article in defense of settlements:
…if and when there are serious talks, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators won’t be wasting much energy debating the future of isolated settlements – settlements that by virtue of their locations clearly cannot become part of Israel under a two-state peace agreement. 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. This is why continued expansion of these “blocs” is equally if not more harmful to the two-state solution as construction in isolated settlements. Given the facts on the ground today, reaching agreement on these blocs will be challenging. Expansion of these blocs – of the settlements in them and of the blocs themselves, whether to include outlying settlements or to create new blocs, like the “Beit El bloc” that has recently been raised in pro-settlement talking points – threatens to make the issue impossible to resolve. [Abrams categorically dismisses these concerns in his response, here].
Finally, Abrams and Sadot contend that Israel’s recent declaration of 1,000 acres of West Bank land as “state land” was merely a “symbolic move.” The lands in question, they argue,
…are going to remain Israel's no matter what: They are populated by some 20,000 Israelis, adjacent to the pre-1967 border, and were recognized in previous negotiations as part of the areas Israel would keep and for which it would swap Israeli land elsewhere.
Another correction is in order: The lands that are the subject of this declaration are not populated by 20,000 Israelis, or by anyone else. The lands are located in Area C – under full Israeli control. Palestinians who claim ownership of the lands are prevented by Israel from developing them, and until the recent annexation, Israel had no basis on which to use them for its own purposes. The lands in question may indeed eventually be populated by Israeli settlers; as Peace Now has documented, plans for settlement construction in the area already exist. Declaring the land “State Land” is a first step in making this possible (although not in the short term, as there will likely be a protracted period of legal challenges to the declaration).
The latter point goes to the crux of a number of Abrams’ and Sadot's arguments. In essence, they are asserting that Israel can do whatever it wants in areas of the West Bank (and East Jerusalem) that “everybody knows” it will retain in any peace agreement. An un-stated corollary to this assertion is that until there is an agreement, the Palestinians have no recognized claim to any of the 62% of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control (Area C), not to mention in East Jerusalem. In effect, this argument gives Israeli governments and settlers free rein to act unilaterally to transform even more of the West Bank and East Jerusalem into land that “everybody knows” Israel will never give up -- even if by doing so they are closing the door on any chance for two states by making "equitable swaps," Palestinian contiguity, and a viable capital in East Jerusalem impossible.
And finally, even if this annexation is viewed as only a symbolic move, how does that justify Netanyahu’s decision to do it at this time? This “symbolic” act is a kick in the gut to Palestinian President Abbas and a gift to Hamas. And it is just the latest signal that Netanyahu would rather have a weak PA and war with Hamas then face the possibility of having to negotiate seriously over land whose future he seems convinced Israel is better off determining unilaterally, through settlements.
Note: For another excellent take-down of Abrams article, check out Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man’s piece on +972, entitled “Everything Elliott Abrams knows about Israeli settlements is wrong.”