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Settlements in Focus: Top 6 Bogus Arguments for Opposing Extension of the Settlement Moratorium (or for Adding Loopholes)

Volume 6, Issue 5

As made clear in our previous analyses of the settlement moratorium, settlement construction since November 2009 has by no means been frozen.  Indeed, so much construction has been permitted under "exceptions" that the moratorium would have to be extended, with no new loopholes, for at least a year before construction on the ground would actually stop.  
Extending the current 10-month settlement moratorium, with no new loopholes or exceptions, is vital to Israel and to peace.  Failing to do so will have a devastating impact on efforts to launch successful peace talks and will play into the hands of those who seek to delegitimize Israel. New settlement construction will be seen as a sign that Israel would rather rule over Palestinians than forge peace.

Bogus argument #1 - "Politically, Netanyahu cannot extend the moratorium and survive":  "On July 28th Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly told the Spanish foreign minister that if the settlement freeze is extended his government will fall.  How can anyone ask Netanyahu to do something that will be politically suicidal?"
Fact:  Contrary to the expectations of many observers, Netanyahu's coalition continues to be stable. His right-wing coalition partners - Yisrael Beiteinu (Leiberman), Shas and the Jewish Home - know that they have no alternative but to stay in the government, recognizing that if they leave the coalition to protest the extension of the settlement moratorium, the Kadima party will quickly take their place.
Indeed, the fact that this right-wing government survived the adoption of theoretically the most far-reaching settlement freeze in history shows that when pressed, this government can abandon its hard-line rhetoric for more pragmatic policies, with no real cost to the coalition itself or from any external opposition (serious opposition from the right is almost non-existent, since most of the right-wing parties are in the coalition).  This demonstrated stability undermines any political excuses Netanyahu might offer for refusing to extend the freeze past September. 
Moreover, nobody should forget that nearly eight months into the moratorium - and after nearly eight months of complaints from the settlers - there is still no real public Israeli outcry or objection to the moratorium or any public outcry against extending it.  Indeed, while the settlers continue to try to capture the Israeli public's attention and sympathy for their cause, what they encountered from the start has primarily been Israeli popular indifference. 
The likelihood of the settlers being able to mobilize large-scale Israeli popular opposition to extending the moratorium  - especially in the face of what will no doubt be a high political cost for Israel if it decides to end the moratorium - is extremely low, and the settlers and the government no doubt know this. 
On the other hand, the likelihood of the Israeli public being unhappy about strained US-Israel ties (not to mention further international censure) over a decision to end the moratorium - a decision that will be of benefit solely to the settlers - is extremely high.
Bogus argument #2 - "Settlement "Blocs": "On July 20th Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor said that 'it would be right to build in places that are destined to be part of the State of Israel, in the settlement blocs and the communities along the [separation] fence.'  The fact is, everyone knows that these areas will become part of Israel, so why not let Israel go ahead and build?"
Fact:  This argument suggests that settlements, not negotiations, will decide final borders.  In doing so it contradicts what both Israel and the Palestinians agreed to in the Oslo Accords - that borders are a final-status issue to be determined by negotiations.  Settlement construction even within so-called blocs destroys the credibility of Palestinian moderates, like President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, who reject violence and tell their people that negotiations with Israel are the correct way forward.
This argument also contradicts the position of every US Administration.  This includes the Bush Administration.  Supporters of settlements are fond of recalling the part of President Bush's April 14, 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon stating that "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."  They tend to forget that in the preceding sentence President Bush said that any agreement to this effect "should emerge from negotiations between the parties" and in the next sentence added the caveat that "any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities" [emphasis added].
Moreover, the issue of construction in settlement blocs is not nearly as clear-cut as settlement advocates would have people believe.
"Settlement bloc" is an informal term, having no legal definition or standing, either under Israeli or international law. It is generally understood to refer to areas where settlements have been established in relatively close proximity to one another and relatively close (as a cluster) to the Green Line, but this definition does not capture the real scope of the issue.  
Throughout the history of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Israel has left the blocs undefined, enabling their unofficial borders to grow year after year, as construction has systematically thickened and expanded them to include settlements and land located at a greater distance from their centers. The blocs and the settlements they contain are not recognized by the Palestinians or the international community as having any special status compared to other settlements, either now or in terms of a future peace agreement. Moreover, many of these "blocs" include what even Israel recognizes to be private Palestinian land.
The route of the West Bank barrier gives some indication of Israel's definition of the "blocs" - that is, Israelis assume that what is on the Israeli side of the barrier is part of the "blocs," and what is on the Palestinian side of the barrier is not. However, this definition ignores the fact that the route of the barrier has been gerrymandered to include as many settlements as possible and to encompass huge areas of adjacent land. As a result, while the built-up area of the settlements on the "Israeli" side of the barrier is approximately 7,300 acres, the total area of West Bank land that is de facto annexed by the barrier is approximately 148,000 acres, or around 20 times the size of the built-up area of the settlements. Thus, while many may wish to portray these "blocs" as something that is non-controversial, the situation on the ground tells a very different story.
For example:
  • In the case of the "Ma'ale Adumim bloc" (east of Jerusalem), the barrier route takes up land many times the size of Ma'ale Adumim, including the area of the planned mega-settlement of E1, a settlement whose construction successive US administrations have recognized as potentially fatal to the two-state solution.
  • In the case of the "Givat Ze'ev bloc" (north of Jerusalem), the barrier route extends so far north of the existing settlement that if construction were permitted to fill the bloc, the settlement could expand at least 5 times in size and reach the very edge of Ramallah - bearing in mind that construction is now underway in this "bloc" for a new ultra-Orthodox settlement (whose residents have an average of 7 children).
  • In the case of the "Etzion bloc" (south of Jerusalem), the route of the barrier not only captures a huge amount of territory that is not part of the built-up area of the settlements, but it extends deep into the West Bank to include the settlement of Efrat, and in doing so severs Bethlehem completely from the southern West Bank (leaving the city of Bethlehem an isolated enclave between the southern Jerusalem barrier and the Gush Etzion bloc).
  • Further north, in the case of the "Ariel bloc" and "Qedumim bloc," these blocs are actually narrow fingers reaching deep inside the West Bank - with the settlement of Ariel, for example, located almost exactly halfway between the Green Line and the Jordan River. Regardless of ideology, it is difficult to imagine a viable peace agreement that leaves these areas under Israeli control.
Based on past negotiations, including the unofficial Geneva Initiative process, it seems likely that Palestinians will be willing to accept a peace agreement under which Israel retains control of some settlements, but only in return for (a) the evacuation of all other settlements and (b) land swaps, equal in size and quality, to compensate for the land kept by Israel. This is an important principle that, in the context of serious peace negotiations, could play a key role in the achievement of a viable final status agreement. However, it is disingenuous to cherry-pick this principle in order to justify new settlement construction outside the context of such negotiations and absent a peace agreement.
For more on the issue of settlements blocs, see our earlier publication: "Settlement Bloc(kages) on the Road to Peace"
Bogus argument #3 - "Natural Growth": "For the past 10 months settlers have been in limbo - they are still having babies, their children have been growing up and getting married, etc., as is the right of any human being anywhere, but they can't live their lives normally.  Even if the moratorium is renewed, new construction must be permitted to accommodate this 'natural growth' in settlements."
Fact: While "natural growth" has no formal definition, it has generally been used in the settler context to mean population growth due to births, as contrasted to growth due to immigration from Israel or other places. But in numerical terms (according to Israeli official statistics), taking into account deaths and people migrating out of settlements, births inside the settlements account for approximately 60% of the annual population growth in settlements, while around 40% is immigration from inside Israel or abroad. So clearly population growth in settlements is not simply a matter of births.  Perhaps this is why some excuse-makers have expanded "natural growth" to include others ways that families can grow, from non-settler spouses to aged non-settler relatives moving in.
Regardless of what definition people want to use, the fact is that "natural growth" is not a legitimate argument against a complete freeze in settlement construction. Yes, settlers, like people everywhere, indeed have the right to have babies, and yes, their children indeed have the right to grow up and have families and homes of their own. But nowhere in the world - not in New York, or Paris, or Tel Aviv - do people have an inalienable right to live exactly where they want - in the size home they want, in the neighborhood they want - irrespective of real estate market factors, or any political, economic, zoning, or other considerations that may come into play (including in this case, considerations about actual land ownership). Inside Israel, just like in other countries, people regularly face difficult decisions about where to live, given that major cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are crowded and little affordable housing is available.
Settlers have the right to have babies and to take in their parents or grandparents. When settler children grow up they have the right to start families and have homes of their own. But the settlers must do what people everywhere must do: reconcile their needs as best as possible to the housing market, which is affected not only by demand but by a myriad of other variables - including, in this case, the fact that settlers have knowingly and voluntarily chosen to make their lives on land that is the subject of a political dispute of global proportions.
Bogus argument #4: "Building inside, but not expanding, settlements": "It was unreasonable from the start to demand a stop to construction even inside settlements. Why shouldn't settlement construction be able to continue so long as it does not use up any new land? The issue is expanding settlements and construction inside settlements is not expansion."
Fact: When it comes to freezing settlements, previous US administrations discovered that the devil is in the details. While it may sound reasonable - nothing more than a minor detail, perhaps - to agree that settlers can continue to build so long as the perimeters of settlements are not expanding, past experience has taught that the definition of "inside a settlement" and "expanding" can be quite flexible in the eyes of the settlers and the Israeli government.
To think about this more concretely:
  • place your hand on a hard surface, splay your fingers wide apart, and take a pen and trace your handprint. Your handprint represents the built-up area of a settlement.
  • draw another line connecting your fingers and your thumb. This line represents the land the settlers might argue is, in effect, already part of the built-up area, even if it has no buildings on it yet.
  • draw a circle around the handprint, leaving a few inches of empty space between this new line and the handprint inside. This line represents the security fence surrounding the settlement, which the settlers might argue is already in effect the "footprint" of the settlement on the ground, since this area is wholly under the settlement's control.
  • draw another much larger circle around the previous circle. This represents the municipal area of the settlement, which the settlers might argue is legally and officially part of the settlement, even if they have not built on it yet.
It is this argument over lines - with settlers looking to exploit any loophole they can find in order to permit more expansion of settlements - that has led past US administrations into the trap of seemingly endless and irresolvable negotiations over how to decide what it means to build "inside" settlements.
This is not a debate over semantics. Many settlements have far-flung "neighborhoods" that, if used as the basis for the "construction line," would permit massive expansion. Most settlements have security fences surrounding them, meaning that this larger area of land is already off-limits to Palestinians. And nearly all settlements have a municipal area many times the size of the built-up area of the settlement - indeed, while the built-up area of settlements takes up less than 2% of the West Bank, fully 9.3% of the West Bank is included within the officially declared municipal boundaries of these settlements; permitting expansion inside these areas would allow settlements to grow many times over.
Some will argue that the difference between construction inside settlements and expansion of settlements is like pornography: you know it when you see it. However, opening this loophole is dangerous, creating a situation where the US will be called on to constantly "referee" what is and isn't permitted. This is neither a smart nor useful way for the US to be expending its diplomatic energies and political capital, and will only cater to settler mischief-makers who are ready and eager to exploit any loophole available.
Bogus argument #5 - "Already Approved Construction": "Israel can't keep freezing construction that was already approved. People have been issued building permits in good faith and have in good faith invested time and money in building and buying new homes. It is not fair to just keep them in limbo - they have to be allowed to build."
Fact: First, tens of thousands of units have been approved for construction, but not yet built, in West Bank settlements. This is according to a report prepared by Gen. Baruch Spiegel, which documented all the approved plans for settlements and estimated the number of completed versus approved structures. If this approved but not-yet-completed construction is allowed to go forward, it would massively expand the number of settlement units, and settlers, in the West Bank. So those who argue that already approved construction is a trivial matter are either misinformed or deliberately fudging the facts.
Second, the government of Israel has the authority to stop settlement projects that are already well-advanced in the approval process - and this is exactly what it did with the current moratorium.  And if people need to be compensated financially for losses due to the freeze, this is something the government of Israel can do under the current moratorium, just as it did in the case of Rabin's 1992 settlement freeze, under which some projects were frozen and some compensation granted. 
Indeed, savvy observers in Israel note that there is one sure way to know when an Israeli settlement freeze is serious: when the government of Israel begins budgeting for the compensation of settlers and investors.
Bogus argument #6 - "There are no subsidies or incentives": "Settlements are growing due to natural market forces - people want to live there - not because of government incentives. Government subsidies for settlements stopped years ago."
Fact: Few Americans (or Israelis for that matter) probably realize that despite the settlement moratorium the government of Israel is still providing significant incentives - preferential benefits over and above what people receive inside Israel - to entice people to live in and move to settlements.
Almost a decade ago, then-Minister of Finance, Binyamin Netanyahu, drastically cut subsidies for settlements (as well as for other purposes), due to economic considerations. However, this was less an end to such subsidies than a diminishing and re-categorization of subsidies. Today, it is correct to say that there are no subsidies in place defined as especially for settlements. Instead there is a system of incentives in place for communities that Israel defines as "preferred development areas" - and the various lists of these areas (different ministries use different lists) have included, at least up until this point, not only parts of the Galilee and the Negev, but the majority of West Bank settlements as well.  Peace Now's full report on the special benefits provided to settlements, as well as information on the higher standard of living in settlements, is available in English here.
In addition, while it is true that there is high demand for housing in some settlements and settlement "blocs" - including areas where incentives like the ones listed above are less prevalent - this demand is not due to "natural" market forces. Rather, it is due to a political decision of the government of Israel to use construction in the West Bank, rather than inside Israel, to meet Israel's housing needs.
For example, it is well known that there is a shortage of affordable housing, particularly for families, in Jerusalem. Rather than build new housing in West Jerusalem or in the western suburbs of the city, the government has instead focused on nearby areas of the West Bank - in particular Ma'ale Adumim. It is thus not surprising that demand for housing in this settlement is high. However, this is not "natural" market demand: if similar housing had been built west of the city, the demand would likely have been equally high, given that residents of Ma'ale Adumim are largely people who move to the West Bank for quality-of-life reasons, not ideology.
Similarly, Israel's ultra-Orthodox community is bursting at the seams, with an average of around 7 children per family and a constant need for new housing.  They prefer to live in segregated, homogeneous communities. Rather than build additional communities for the ultra-Orthodox inside Israel, the government has elected to build a new city for them in the West Bank (Givat Ze'ev Illit), north of Jerusalem. It is thus not surprising that demand for housing in this new settlement is high. However, this is not "natural" market demand: in similar cities that were built inside the green line (for example, Elad and Ramat Bet Shemesh), the demand for housing is similar.
Finally, the government of Israel has invested tremendous sums of money in infrastructure in the West Bank to transform even remote settlements to convenient suburbs of Israeli cities. For example, the government invested millions of shekels to build a new road to bypass Bethlehem from the east and connect the small settlements of Tekoa and Noqdim (where Foreign Minister Lieberman lives) to Jerusalem from the south. In doing so, it transformed these isolated settlements into virtual suburbs of Jerusalem, whose residents enjoy a 10-minute, traffic-free commute to the city. It is not surprising that less than two years after the road was opened, we see today a construction "growth spurt" in Tekoa and Nokdim. But clearly, there is nothing "normal" or "free market" about this growth.

Produced by Lara Friedman, Director of Policy and Government Relations, Americans for Peace Now, and Hagit Ofran, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel)