The Data on Settlements and the Effects on the Peace Talks
Between January and June 2013 before the talks began, there were 1,708 housing starts compared with 995 during the same period the year before. In all of 2013 there were 2,534 housing units completed in the West Bank, slightly more than double the 1,267 units completed in 2012. When these figures were released by the Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel (www.cbs.gov.il) in early March 2014, is it any surprise that Israeli news headlines read:
“Settler housing starts up by 124% in 2013” Jerusalem Post 3;
”Settlement construction more than doubled in 2013,” Haaretz;
“West Bank housing starts rise by more than 120 percent,” Jewish Journal;.
“Settlement housing starts nearly triple, in 2013,” The Times of Israel.
So what do you expect news outlets around the world from Fox News to the Japan Times to report?
Of the units completed in 2013, 853 had been started in 2012 and a further 1,421 units were under construction in 2012. So 90% of the units completed in 2013 had been started in 2012.
On 11 August, Uri Ariel announced plans to expand housing in Leshern as well as other West Bank settlements totaling about 400 new homes plus approximately 800 in areas of East Jerusalem that are part of Jewish Jerusalem. Another over 1200 units were announced later in the month. The breakdown of housing units approved and started in August 2013 were as follows:
Date Approved Started Constr. Complete Area
August 6 239 Ma’on
August 8 878 Jordan V, Binyamin, Etzion
August 12 890 Gilo Jerusalem
63 Jabal Mukabir, E. Jerusalem
392 Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, Betar
August 27 942 Gilo
66 Neve Yaakov
Uri Ariel, Israel’s Housing and Construction Minister, predicted the talks would fail, but did not acknowledge that the new housing starts would contribute to or be a key cause of that failure, although I believe he certainly hoped so. While Israel insisted these planned housing units were in accord with an understanding not only with the Americans but with the Palestinians, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, issued a statement: “We don’t accept any settlement bids and Israel should stop these acts to give negotiations the opportunity to succeed. For us, all settlements are illegal and Israel should stop putting obstacles in the way of peace and all its acts in this regard are illegal and void.”
When the talks had been underway for almost four months, in October 2013, just after the Israeli negotiating team once again met with John Kerry in Israel, the government announced that 1500 more housing units would be built in Jerusalem. Further, Netanyahu approved tenders for 2500 housing units in the West Bank, though the actual breakdown of approvals did not total 2,500.
The Palestinians protested by suspending talks for two weeks. The announcement timing seemed to offer a quid pro quo to the Israeli right because it immediately followed the release of 26 more Palestinian prisoners. The Jerusalem housing units were to be built in the non-Arab populated bare hills of East Jerusalem as fill-ins of existing suburbs. Similarly, the housing units for the West Bank were fill-ins rather than expansions of the boundaries of those settlements.
Date Approved Started Constr. Complete Area
October 10 58 East Jerusalem
October 31 582
296 Bet El
By December, both the EU and the USA strongly lobbied with the Israeli government officials not to announce any new government housing activities as they anticipated such announcements would correspond with the release of more prisoners at the end of December, an anticipation confirmed by Netanyahu himself. The warnings were ignored, though the announcement was delayed. Israel announced tenders for 1400 housing units in the West Bank and Jerusalem in the second week of January. Although earlier leaks had indicated that the announcement would be for 2000 rather than 1400 new starts already downgraded from early December leaks of 1500 units for Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem and 3500 for the West Bank, actually, 2,553 units were approved.
The pattern is clear. Leak news of new announced housing starts to time with a scheduled prisoner release. Then, following the release, announce a smaller number than the numbers leaked and ignore European, American and Palestinian warnings that such announcements jeopardized the talks. The actual starts could be smaller still. The Israeli right and the Israeli left were united in the propensity to exaggerate housing figures in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The breakdown for January 2014 were as follows:
Date Approved Started Constr. Complete Area
6 22 Karnei Shomron
10 227 Efrat
78 Alfe Menashe
86 Karnei Shomron
24 Betar Illit
182 Pisgat Zeev
56 Neve Yaacov
21 381 Givat Zeev
22 256 Nofie Prat
Three months later, Netanyahu postponed the prisoner release and the government also announced the construction of 700 new housing units, Kerry let it be known that he blamed Israel for the breakdown in the talks because of reneging on the prisoner release and for the continued building of new houses in the settlements though Kerry never overtly made the statement that was originally planned.
The announced housing starts before and after the talks began were as follows:
Date East Jerusalem West Bank Total
Jan-June 2013 1708
August 2013 800 400 1200
October 2013 1500 2500 4000 6908
January 2014 1400
April 1400 700 2100
Total over period of peace talks 10,408
Total over 16 months 13,116
Actual authorized units totaled 8,217.
By adding up the figures based on early leaks, one gets the total of 14,000 new unit approvals publicized by Peace Now. By including the first six months before the talks formally starter, one gets a figure of just under 14,000. Whichever way Peace Now made its calculations, the actual figures were much less.
Further, if the data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, which everyone regards as the most reliable source, are used, since the beginning of 2013, 32,290 construction sites for housing units were slotted across all of Israel in 2013, an increase of 5.5% compared to the corresponding time frame in 2012. Work actually began on 2,534 new housing units, 1710 apartments and 824 homes, in the settlements in 2013, compared to 1,133 in 2012, that is, roughly one-third of the units approved Nevertheless, the total of new units that were constructed more than doubled rather than increased by just over 5%., though still only 50% of the units started under Barak in 2000. Further, 40% were subsidized public housing units, twice the normal percentage within Israel proper. This suggests a very deliberate government policy of expanding the settlement housing units beyond that required by any consumer demand as indicated in the following chart.
For Sale Sold Demand
17,114 18,860 35,974 R 2009
17,584 22,786 40,370 R 2010
20,516 19,737 40,253 R 2011
20,251 22,526 42,777 R 2012
18,716 24,547 43,263 R 2013
Thus, the overall rate of housing construction over Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank increased by about 7.5%. But the amount of approvals, and especially of construction in the West Bank increased disproportionately. This is particularly significant because demand fell significantly for the purchase of housing units in the West Bank. Of the total number of 11,146 units built in all of Israel, 500 were for Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and 1,227 were for Jerusalem. Announcements of newly constructed units in the West Bank far exceeded demand which no where came close to the number of units approved for construction. The demand figure for 2014 fell even further than in 2013 to 212 in the West Bank, though 1891 for Jerusalem. Housing for sale took significantly longer to sell than in the rest of Israel. Further, housing on the market took longer and longer to sell – up to 8 months on average for new units. The number of housing units announced are clearly not a response to demand; the announcements, as well as the denunciations, are driven by political goals.
This is clearly indicated by the actual number of housing starts versus the numbers authorized, Announced numbers far exceed actual construction. Of those built on public land (all land in the West Bank is public land), and since housing is built on both government and privately owned land in an approximate 50/50 ratio, of the over 21,000 units to be built on public land in 2013, almost 40% were to be built in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. In reality, abut 30% were actually built, most in Jerusalem.
Let me summarize what I believe is going on. For political reasons, presumably to both satisfy the demands of the far right critical of any peace talks, housing permission for starts are announced that greatly exceed demand or actual construction and disproportionate to housing starts in the rest of the country. and deliberately insensitive to public opinion, or rather, official public opinion in Europe, America or Palestine. Further, the permits for housing starts and actual starts are now confined to fill-ins within the established border of settlements or to connect with outlier sections to create continuity.
While headlines parade the more than doubling of West Bank construction in 2013, the reality is that the doubling is an aberration caused by the depressed number of starts over the previous few as the chart below indicates and do very little to make up for the depressed number of starts from 2010 to 2012. Further, 80% of units completed in 2013 were started in 2012.
The reality is, whatever the far right insists about ambitions for Greater Israel, that plan is dead. What is alive is the plan to consolidate settlements and trade them for other land to reinforce Israel’s security position and the thrusts it has already established consistent with Ariel Sharon’s strategic objective to “thicken” Israel’s narrow waist. Israelis generally concur that the settlement blocs of Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Elkana and Ariel will remain within sovereign Israel as part of a final status agreement. Since the Palestinian Authority has agreed to these land swaps and the real debate is still over sufficiency with the exception of parts of Jerusalem – this suggests that settlements are a key part of the rhetoric of peace talks for the far right, for the left critics, for Palestine and for both Europe and America, but they are not the insurmountable obstacle to peace negotiations.
So although I have always disagreed with settlements activity, my criticism now is mostly about bad public relations. What may be needed for peace on Netanyahu’s domestic political front plays very badly on the international arena and offers the Palestinian Authority free reign to win that public relations battle. Further, since both sides know they cannot agree on Jerusalem, Netanyahu has calculated that domestic political peace is of greater value than international public relations. Since Tzipi Livni clearly knows the full story, she recognizes this is a rhetorical and not primarily a political battle on the ground. The question for her remains whether a deal can be made on Jerusalem.
That remains the elusive target. Though housing starts are also about the Jerusalem issue, most of the blather about settlements is a public relations issue which in part explains why the American negotiators dumped on Netanyahu for sabotaging the talks. Someone had to be blamed. Netanyahu had been set up for blame right from the start, even though he had not agreed to a settlement freeze. Blaming Netanyahu is the clear easier choice. Otherwise, to focus on the central dilemma would lead to questions about why the initiative was taken in the first place.
Finally, I personally applaud the initiative in spite of the failure and in spite of the political use of the blame game because the talks have really narrowed the end game. Since I do not see the conflict as resolvable at this time, I think the next stage will be more well thought-out unilateral moves by Israel to reduce frictions at minimal risk while further consolidating claims on territories Israel plans to annex. However, I am not imaginative enough to envisage how land swaps can be managed unilaterally. However, in order to understand how any unilateral moves can be made in light of the terrible experience with Gaza, and with Lebanon earlier, it is important to understand the nature of the newly announced realignment of Fatah and Hamas and the Palestinian position..
That is for tomorrow.