Netanyahu’s (Real) Settlement Record

Jointly authored by Lara Friedman, APN (USA) and Hagit Ofran, Peace Now (Israel)

Defenders of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have seized on a recent report in Haaretz to argue that Netanyahu’s record shows that he has, in fact, been less pro-settlements than his detractors (including Peace Now) have suggested. Their argument hinges on a single statistic raised in that story: the average number of construction starts in settlements per year, as counted by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS), across the 6 years Netanyahu has been in office, compared to that same number for previous prime ministers over the past 20 years.  But as is often the case when it comes to statistics, the devil is in the details, and a single statistic taken in isolation will always obscure more than it reveals.

East Jerusalem

The statistic ignores East Jerusalem settlements entirely. The number of settlement starts in East Jerusalem under Netanyahu, averaged across his entire time in office, is higher than at any time since Ehud Barak was prime minister (1999-2000), and almost double the annual average when Netanyahu was Prime Minister in the 1990s.  Major settlement plans were approved and implemented in settlement neighborhoods across East Jerusalem, in most cases going beyond the already built-up footprint of the area. The most prominent of these was in Ramat Shlomo (the infamous focus of controversy during Biden’s March 2009 visit), but there was also the expansion of Gilo, Ramot and Har Homa – the latter being especially toxic, as Har Homa is seen by the Palestinians and much of the international community as the quintessential unilateral act that prejudges the outcome of permanent status.  Much of this construction alters the potential borders between Israel and Palestine, in some cases in ways that are very significant; one of these projects, the new settlement of Givat Hamatos (completely approved during Netanyahu's term but not yet constructed) could be a deal-breaker. 

The ICBS statistic also overlooks the fact that with respect to settlers moving into the heart of Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem -- the most explosive of settlement category -- Netanyahu has outdone all of his recent predecessors, in effect restoring the policies of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the government of Israel and the East Jerusalem settlers worked hand-in-hand to change the facts on the ground in East Jerusalem. This began virtually from the moment Netanyahu took office, with the approval in 2009 of the establishment of a new settlement enclave in Sheikh Jarrah, at the Shepherd’s Hotel – the first settlement in this area of East Jerusalem since 1967. It has continued unabated through today, most recently with this week’s eviction of 2 Palestinian families and settler takeover of their residence in the Batan al-Hawa area of Silwan – an act that could not have been carried out without the acquiescence and assistance of the Israeli government.

Examining Policies of Each Government, NOT the Aggregate

Given that Netanyahu has been prime minister for longer than anyone except David Ben Gurion, comparing the record of his time in office to the much shorter tenures of his predecessors obscures meaningful insights into his settlement policies across time.  A more illuminating comparison is between the settlement records of each government since 1995.  

  • During Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 term, the average number of new West Bank settlement construction starts was indeed lower than under his predecessors. That dip was largely attributable to the 2010 settlements moratorium – ten months during which Netanyahu refrained from approving new West Bank settlement construction or issuing new tenders.  Importantly, factoring the moratorium into the equation reveals that Netanyahu’s record for West Bank settlements starts across his first term is similar to that of previous governments. 
  • Netanyahu’s 2013-2015 is even more interesting: during these years, average settlement starts in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem rose to higher level than any time since 2000. This spike reflected in part a spike in tenders under Netanyahu following the end of the 2010 moratorium, with construction under those tender coming to fruition in his second term (the data for 2015 is still incomplete but 1st half of the year numbers are high, meaning unless construction slows down in the ground for some reason, 2015 should continue this trend).  It also likely reflected an opening of the settlement floodgates linked to the Obama-led 2010 peace effort (which was accompanied every step of the way with new settlement announcements and approvals).

Location of Settlement Activity

The ICBS statistic reveals nothing about where the new West Bank settlement construction is taking place. Peace Now data shows that under Netanyahu new starts in settlements located east of the route of Israel’s separation barrier have risen significantly – from around 20% of new starts to 35% of new starts – meaning a significantly greater investment in the expansion of settlements in areas nobody could possibly believe would remain under Israeli control in the context of any two-state agreement.

Illegal Construction

ICBS numbers omit anything related to illegal settler construction. Peace Now estimates that over 1000 new units were built illegally by settlers between 2009 and 2014 – “phantom” units not counted by the ICBS. Since 2009, and especially since 2011, Netanyahu has acted in an unprecedented way to legalize at least 20 illegal outposts – in effect establishing new settlements and giving the okay, post-facto, to the most of the aforementioned “phantom” units and permitting planning and construction of thousands more. Likewise, ICBS statistics do not include as “new starts” things like the new settlement approved in March 2014 in Hebron, to be located in an existing large Palestinian structure taken over by settlers.

Planning for Future Construction

Under Netanyahu, planning for additional construction in settlements in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank has exploded - data not captured in ICBS statistics.  By conservative estimates, since taking office in 2009 Netanyahu has advanced planning for at least 18,037 new units in West Bank settlements (of which almost half is planned for areas located east of the separation barrier). During this same period, he has advanced planning for more than 12,000 units in East Jerusalem. To this must be added the policy of the Netanyahu government of building ever-more infrastructure in the West Bank designed to serve and permit the expansion of settlements, at the expense of the Palestinians (including Palestinians in Jerusalem, most notably those in Beit Safafa, through the middle of which Israel routed a major highway giving Gush Etzion settlers direct access to the Jerusalem city center, and the construction of an interchange south east of Ramallah to ease the route of settlers living at the heart of the West Bank). 

Land Confiscations for Settlements

The full picture of Netanyahu’s settlement policies must include land confiscations for settlement use. Israel had for the most part stopped using this tactic for decades, but in 2013 Netanyahu revived the practice in order to facilitate the legalization of illegal outposts (490 acres) and in order to consolidate and expand the bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem known as Gush Etzion (990 acres). The latter declaration is unprecedented in its scope since the 1980's.

Coercive Displacement of Palestinians in Area C

To grasp the full scope of Netanyahu’s settlement policies requires examining his government’s policy of coercive displacement of Palestinians living in Area C, targeting most notably the entire village of Sussya – an area openly coveted by settlers – and Bedouins living in the area where Netanyahu has quietly forged ahead with highly controversial plans to eventually build the settlement of E-1.  Added to this must be the policy under the Netanyahu government of using home demolitions, and threats of home demolitions, to systematically target and push Palestinians out of Area C – the area of the West Bank under Israeli control and home to most settlements.

In sum, ICBS statistics can be a useful tool for tracking specific aspects of settlement activity, but like any statistics, when cherry-picked they obscure more than they reveal.  In this case, they are being manipulated by some in order to obscure, defend, and advance Netanyahu’s ceaseless actions to promote a pro-settlements, one-state agenda. The totality of the facts, however, tell a very different story.