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Blasting Israeli Settlement Construction Will Get Biden Nowhere

Settlement growth in the West Bank is a product of population pressure, not policy.

By , a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and , an independent researcher and former cybersecurity expert for the Israeli government.
A view of Givat Zeev, an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, on Nov. 19, 2019.
A view of Givat Zeev, an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, on Nov. 19, 2019.
A view of Givat Zeev, an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, on Nov. 19, 2019. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

When the Israeli government moved toward greenlighting the construction of nearly 4,500 new homes in West Bank settlements in early May, the Biden administration quickly criticized the move, just as it had denounced the last such announcement in October. The pattern has been familiar for decades: Israel announces new construction, and the United States condemns it.

Despite the apparent certainty of both positions, key facts about Israeli settlement plans often remain unknown. Will Israel use new land in the Palestinian territories—or build within the confines of existing settlements? Does the announcement mean the beginning of actual construction—or is it just one more step in a long list of reversible approvals? The recent announcement, for example, gave final approval for only about half the proposed construction, while “around 1,800 projects at various phases of approval were removed from the agenda,” according to the Times of Israel. These are crucial questions that add important nuance to the settlements issue and the United States’ policy goal of promoting a two-state solution. Yet for many years, getting clarity over the settlement enterprise has been surprisingly hard.

Finally, good data has now become available. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics has changed the outdated way it used to document the settlements and has begun publishing more accurate population counts. Moreover, the settler movement created its own research unit that publishes granular population trends based on its own internal data.

When the Israeli government moved toward greenlighting the construction of nearly 4,500 new homes in West Bank settlements in early May, the Biden administration quickly criticized the move, just as it had denounced the last such announcement in October. The pattern has been familiar for decades: Israel announces new construction, and the United States condemns it.

Despite the apparent certainty of both positions, key facts about Israeli settlement plans often remain unknown. Will Israel use new land in the Palestinian territories—or build within the confines of existing settlements? Does the announcement mean the beginning of actual construction—or is it just one more step in a long list of reversible approvals? The recent announcement, for example, gave final approval for only about half the proposed construction, while “around 1,800 projects at various phases of approval were removed from the agenda,” according to the Times of Israel. These are crucial questions that add important nuance to the settlements issue and the United States’ policy goal of promoting a two-state solution. Yet for many years, getting clarity over the settlement enterprise has been surprisingly hard.

Finally, good data has now become available. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics has changed the outdated way it used to document the settlements and has begun publishing more accurate population counts. Moreover, the settler movement created its own research unit that publishes granular population trends based on its own internal data.

Here’s what the numbers tell us.

No imaginable Israeli government will be able to freeze settlement construction, in effect telling parents they cannot add a room or buy a bigger home when children arrive.

From 2009 to 2021, the period of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long second term, the Israeli population living in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) grew from 320,000 to nearly 500,000. This 56 percent increase is more than twice the population growth in Israel within its 1967 borders. In annual terms, that’s 3.8 percent population growth in the settlements versus 1.7 percent in Israel proper.

Under the George W. Bush administration and ever since, the United States has been particularly upset when Israel has built in areas beyond the major settlement blocks. This issue was particularly sensitive at the time because a territorial swap was being discussed, wherein Israel would keep the major blocks and everything else would become an independent Palestinian state. To thwart that policy, the settler movement focused its efforts exactly in those areas, beyond the blocks. In hindsight, who won, Washington or the settlers? Neither, because from 2009 to 2021 population grew in and outside the blocks at nearly identical rates—57 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

But it wasn’t just Bush’s policy that had little effect. The population growth rate barely changed during Barack Obama’s eight years of protesting settlement growth (4.2 percent per year on average) or Donald Trump’s four years of indifference to it (3.7 percent). Growth was steady throughout, no matter who occupied the White House.

So what really explains settlement growth and makes it largely immune from political pressure? When one looks at the numbers for individual settlements, the growth rate of a town has little to do with government policy or international protests but can primarily be explained by the religiosity of its inhabitants, which in turn correlates greatly with birth rates. The fastest-growing settlements, Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit, are populated by ultra-Orthodox religious groups that have above-average family sizes. These patterns are very close to what’s happening within pre-1967 Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox population is growing between double and triple the general rate. Many other settlements are populated by members of the national-religious movement—and the growth of their numbers, too, is largely related to above-average family size. This suggests that population growth in the settlements, and the need for more housing there, is driven more by natural population growth among religious families than government policy.

What does this mean for future policy? For years, critics of the settlements have demanded a freeze not just of settlement expansion but of overall settler numbers. But because every Israeli government is a coalition of elected parties, no imaginable government in the foreseeable future will be able to impose such a freeze, in effect telling parents they cannot add a room or buy a bigger home when children arrive—or forbid them to have additional children in the first place, which a cap on overall settler numbers would require.

The Israeli government can presumably affect whether new construction is inside or outside established blocks and has arguably tried to do so in the last decades. By definition, new settler outposts are established despite or against Israeli government policy, and their fate is often subject to lengthy wrangling that may lead to legalization or removal after lengthy and often misleading political grandstanding. But the overall growth rate is the product of family decisions, not government policy.

For the United States to harangue Israel’s government every time new housing units in the West Bank are announced will achieve nothing. A more realistic approach would be to focus protests and pressure against any attempt to significantly change the status quo—while actively nudging Israel into building in existing settlements within the recognized blocks. Fighting overall population growth rates is a fool’s errand that will harm bilateral relations and fail. And that is because it is really not government policy that is expanding the settler population in the West Bank. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are making decisions on family size and, like families everywhere, don’t want their government to interfere with those decisions. Which, realistically, it won’t.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former U.S. State Department special representative for Venezuela during the Trump administration.

Uri Sadot is an independent researcher and former cybersecurity expert for the Israeli government.

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