Facts on the Ground: Elliot Abrams’ Flawed Defense of Bibi’s Settlement Push

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting a raw deal.   That’s the line being peddled by Elliot Abrams, who has emerged in recent months as one of the staunchest U.S. defenders of Netanyahu’s settlement policy.  Rather than bury Netanyahu with criticism for expanding settlements, Abrams argue, 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.

Take his recent Foreign Affairs article, in which Abrams focuses on government data showing that there were “only” 232 new settlement starts during the first quarter of 2014.  Contrasting this to an annual average of 1,687 new settlement starts for the past decade, Abrams contends that settlement construction has slowed down – so much so that Netanyahu is taking heat from settler leaders. And Abrams argues that almost all of the new construction is located inside settlement “blocs” and is therefore non-controversial.  So that’s it, case closed – right? 

Not so fast…   Abrams neglects to mention that new settlement starts spiked last year, totaling 2,543 new starts in 2013 – a 123.7% increasing over 2012 and the highest number of new starts in settlements since 2000.  The spike was so large that even if not a single additional settlement unit was started for the rest of 2014 (already not the case), 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.

There’s no need to restrict ourselves to this single data point. Netanyahu has been in office since March 2009, so there is abundant data disclosing his approach on settlements.  This data is unequivocal: Since taking office, Netanyahu has overseen a policy of ever-increasing settlement construction across the entirety of the West Bank, on both sides of Israel’s separation barrier.  The trend in new settlement starts – official Israeli government figures – is perhaps the starkest evidence:  737 units in 2010; 1,110 in 2011; 1,133 in 2012; and 2,534 in 2013.  And this has included hundreds of units located east of the barrier.

Of course, new starts aren’t the best measure of Netanyahu’s more recent policies, given that starts are the culmination of a months- or even years-long approval process.  A better measure is the number of units being promoted through the various stages of the approval process – approvals that set the stage for new construction in the short- and medium-term.  Here, again, the data, tracked closely by the Israeli Peace Now movement, is unequivocal.  2011 saw the promotion of 2,217 settlement units, of which 1,027 are to be built east of the barrier.  For 2012, the total was 12,195, of which 3,272 are east of the barrier.  For 2013, the total was 11,598, of which 4,774 are east of the barrier.

Did Netanyahu’s approach shift in 2014, during the most recent peace effort, in a show of good faith about a two-state solution?  To determine the answer, let’s home in on his actions from July 29, 2013 (the start of negotiations) through the end of March 2014, when the process fell apart.  The facts, again, are unambiguous: Throughout this peace effort, Netanyahu pursued an aggressive settlement policy.  He promoted plans and tenders for at least 13,851 housing units in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, averaging around 50 units a day and 1,540 per month.  This included tenders for 4,868 new units (2,248 in the West Bank, 2,260 in East Jerusalem) – a number four times higher than the yearly average of the previous governments. It included approvals of planning for 8,983 new units (6,561 in West Bank settlements, 2,422 in East Jerusalem).  And where will these new planned West Bank units be located?  Seventy-three percent of them (4,793) in isolated settlements and only 27% of them (1,768) in the areas that are supposedly uncontroversial. 

The latter point leads to the other major flaw, or deception, in Abrams’ position: the notion that construction inside settlement “blocs” is a non-issue.  In reality – the reality inhabited by Palestinians who are not going allow anyone, including Abrams or Netanyahu, to unilaterally dictate the borders of their state – the future of all Israeli settlements is subject to negotiations, whether inside or outside the “blocs”.   And make no mistake: 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.  And notably, these “blocs” don’t just include settlements: If you take a radius from the center of a “bloc” like Gush Etzion, Givat Ze’ev, or Ariel, the majority of the population is in most cases Palestinian.  

Abrams is incorrect if not deliberately disingenuous when he suggests that Netanyahu is slowing down settlement expansion or is only expanding settlements inside the blocs.  And Abrams is peddling a dangerous and false narrative when he suggests that building “only in the blocs” would, in any case, be a sign of good faith with respect to peace and the two-state solution.  Settlement approvals and construction today – whether in the blocs or in the isolated areas of the West Bank – send a message to Palestinians and increasingly to the world that Israel’s leaders prefer occupation to negotiation and value land over peace.  And perhaps these same Israeli leaders believe that with defenders like Elliot Abrams on the case, ready to cherry-pick data and twist the facts, they will get away with it.