The Unsettled Question

The Unsettled Question

With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks about to begin again, the debate over West Bank settlements is bound to heat up — in public and at the negotiating table. The argument, however, involves not just opinions on what policies are right, but disagreement over basic facts. Is most construction now in the major blocs and in Jerusalem — areas that Israel is believed likely to keep in any final agreement — or is there substantial growth as well in settlements beyond the security fence, which would likely be part of a new Palestinian state? In whose benefit is time ticking, anyway?

Given the constant focus on the settlements — not least in Washington and European capitals — one would expect simple and forthright answers to these questions. But getting the facts turns out to be as great a challenge as settling on the best policy. There is no agreement on population growth rates in the settlements, nor on how many Israelis live outside the "major blocs." The ambiguity around this important question has allowed interested parties to fill in the blanks with answers that best suit their political narrative.

The numbers given by the Palestinian Authority, which show linear population growth over the past decade, reported that there were a staggering 544,000 Israeli settlers in 2012, which is 9 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Those figures, however, do not distinguish between Israelis who live east of the security fence and those who live in Jerusalem or in the major blocs that at Camp David, in the Annapolis peace summit, and in every proposed peace plan end up as part of Israel.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics would be the natural place to look for such figures, but as there is no single agreed definition of what constitutes a "bloc," its official number of 325,000 Israelis now living in the "Judea and Samaria region" provides only partial information. Like the Palestinian Authority’s figures, the bureau’s numbers do not tell us how many Israelis live in the large blocs that Israel is likely to keep, nor how many live in the areas of the West Bank that are expected to become part of the new state of Palestine.

In a New York Times op-ed last year, settler leader Dani Dayan cited 160,000 Jews living in "communities outside the settlement blocs that proponents of the two-state solution believe could be easily incorporated into Israel." Meanwhile, Peace Now’s official Facebook page speaks of 70,000 citizens who would have to relocate if an agreement were finally found.

Of course, current population totals may reflect longer-term rather than recent trends. Our main goal was to see what’s happening right now: Are those towns beyond the security fence still growing? The oft-repeated argument that "the window for peace is closing" depends largely on the belief that the settlements beyond the fence are expanding, meaning the number of Israelis who may resist a final agreement is presumably growing as well.

Israeli election results data provide an important insight into these elusive facts on the ground, because trends in the size of the voting population can be a good proxy for trends in overall population. According to electoral data, there has been significant recent growth all throughout the West Bank — on both sides of the fence. More specifically, the number of Israelis over the age of 18 (eligible voters) who live beyond the Green Line and outside the settlement blocs has increased by 17 percent during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current term in office.

The population growth rate of Jews in Israel was about 6 percent when today’s voters were being born, meaning that some of the additional 11 percent reflects physical relocation to the settlements. Of course, the "natural growth" of the settlements may exceed the population growth rate of the average Israeli Jewish family: Religious families in Israel tend to be larger, and in the West Bank younger, than the general population, so it is logical that their growth rate is higher. But that does not change the bottom line: Settlements beyond the Green Line and outside the major blocs grew by over a tenth during Netanyahu’s recent term of office.

As we have noted, there is no one definition of settlement "blocs" — but that turns out not to matter much either. By counting only towns that are west of the existing security barrier, one reaches the same results: 17 percent growth. Similarly, by looking only at towns that were offered by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the 2008 Annapolis negotiations, the growth in the number of voters remains as high.

Is a 10 or 11 percent growth rate high? We looked at the Olmert years for a comparison. During Olmert’s three-year tenure (2006 to 2009), the number of eligible voters in those very same towns grew by 35 percent. That was more than double the current annual rate and the lower recent rate may reflect, for example, the partial moratorium on settlement construction imposed by the Netanyahu government in 2010. The growth during the Olmert years is remarkable, considering that his campaign agenda (hitkansut, usually translated as "consolidation") was a second disengagement and withdrawal from much of the West Bank area beyond the fence. It is also noteworthy that some of this faster growth comes from towns in which the majority of votes went in 2013 to center-left parties that advocate for a two-state solution (Almog, Niran, Gilgal) or to ultra-Orthodox parties that generally accept the idea of partition (Asfar, Ma’ale Amos). Those voters are Israelis who chose to move into settlements for non-ideological reasons and would presumably be willing to move if compensated.

The total number of eligible voters in settlements beyond the security fence in January 2013 stood at 43,155. Both the Yesha council website and data from the 2008 Israeli census indicate that the median age is 18 in the Judea and Samaria communities, which means that the actual population is about double the number of voters.

Ironically, both the Palestinian Authority and the Yesha council have chosen a strategy of supersizing the numbers — the Palestinians to create a sense of urgency ("the window for peace is closing"), and the settlers a sense of irreversibility ("it’s too late to move so many settlers out"). Scare tactics and alarmism, however, will only stifle productive debate and can lead to policies grounded in misinformation.

In recent years, Netanyahu has made several statements that endorsed a two-state solution and showed he understood that a peace agreement with the Palestinians would require removal of numerous settlements. If the guiding Israeli principle remains a two-state solution, partition of the West Bank, and separation from the Palestinians, it is especially hard to see the logic in allowing further blending of the populations. The roughly 80,000 Jews who live in the places included in the 2008 offer by Olmert still remain a drop in a sea of Palestinians. Perhaps the settler movement should reconsider its focus on maintaining and expanding that small population, which is only 3 to 5 percent of the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank. An internal debate over possible overstretching, and consideration of focusing their efforts on second-tier goals — such as the Negev and the Galilee, where the Jewish population is thin, and successive governments have tried to increase it — might be worthwhile.

The policy of several consecutive Israeli governments has been to seek a two-state solution — but Israeli resources are still being put into the expansion of the very settlements that would have to be removed to consummate such a deal. How many resources, and how much are those settlements growing? It is hard to come up with hard numbers, and we acknowledge the limitations to our methodology. But the very fact that facts are hard to come by is significant: Transparency won’t end the debate on settlement expansion, but it would make that debate better informed and far more intelligent.