Unnatural Growth

Bibi Netanyahu says the Israeli settlements in the West Bank must grow to accommodate population expansion. He's full of it.

Flickr user Decode JerusalemRooms available: Enlarging the settlements only makes them harder to dismantle in the future.

It must be said that Benjamin Netanyahu has learned a little from Barack Obama. True, the Israeli prime minister has been remarkably slow in grasping that when the U.S. president says he wants a freeze on settlement building, he means a freeze. But at least Netanyahu has learned that the way to reframe your foreign policy is to give a big, well-publicized speech at a university campus.

So on Sunday, June 14, Netanyahu will speak at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. I can't guess what the prime minister will say. But here's one thing he absolutely shouldn't say: Construction must continue in settlements to accommodate natural growth. If he does make this argument, no one should take it seriously. It's built on layers of myth and misconceptions.

Let's take them one by one.

Obama wants a baby ban: First is the completely misconceived notion -- put out by everyone from Israeli politicians to American pundits -- that Obama's stance is a decree against having babies in settlements. This is silly. The president is reiterating what's stated in the 2003 road map for peace: Israel must freeze settlement activity, meaning building and expansion of settlements. The issue is construction, not reproduction.

The fact is that even if all building in settlements stopped cold today, the number of Israelis in settlements would keep rising. Young couples who have bought apartments or houses in bedroom communities like Ma'aleh Adumim and Beitar Illit have done so with growing families in mind and have picked homes accordingly. If a couple decides to have more kids than they planned on, they have prosaic middle-class alternatives, just like couples elsewhere in the developed world: They can use the space in their current home differently, or they can shop for a house elsewhere.

Grown children must live next door to their parents: Obama's critics also claim that he's denying homes to young people who have grown up in settlements. But who said that people in modern societies have a basic right to live in the same neighborhood as their parents? Parents living in Israeli cities know that their children won't necessarily live down the street when they grow up. Settlers may also have to drive to visit their grandchildren. They may have to enter Israel. That's not a denial of human rights, or of Zionism.

Pinchas Wallerstein, director-general of the Council of Settlements in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, admitted this week in an interview on Israel Radio that natural development, as he called it, isn't meant to make room for settlers' own children. Instead, he argued, the number of homes being built should match the number of settler couples getting married -- regardless of who actually lives in those homes. But Wallerstein's yardstick -- the number of marriages -- is arbitrary. His goal is simply to continue and accelerate settlement growth.

Natural increase is the only reason that settlements grow: Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics reports that in 2007 -- the most recent year for which there are figures -- the West Bank settlement population grew 5.6 percent. That's three times faster than the growth of the Israeli population as a whole.

Partly, that's due to a high birthrate. But more than one third of the growth resulted from continued migration into settlements. The influx isn't a product of some invisible hand of the real estate market. Far from it. The Israeli government has encouraged growth through planning, state-initiated projects, and subsidies.

Under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the government pushed development in the major settlement blocs -- areas that Olmert hoped to hold onto in a peace agreement. The reason for the rush to build is precisely that no agreement has been reached with the Palestinians over the future of the blocs. By building, Olmert wanted to make withdrawal from those areas more difficult.

That fits an old pattern: Since settlement began in 1967, weeks after Israel's victory in the Six Day War, the purpose has been to create facts that will obligate future governments and constrain any diplomatic process. Settlers who are honest with themselves know that their communities were built as part of a political bid to impose a particular vision of the future of the West Bank -- one that could fail at any time. The settlement enterprise has always had the risk of a freeze or an evacuation built into it.

Since we're negotiating, building doesn't matter: Most previous U.S. administrations have avoided confrontation over settlements if peace talks were in progress. Obama is right to avoid this mistake, because construction is aimed at preempting the negotiations.

Unintentionally, Wallerstein made the point clear in his radio interview. There are already 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank, he noted. (The figure doesn't include the Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.) If we really make peace, he said, it won't matter if the number has risen to 325,000. A few seconds later, he recalled the trauma to Israeli society caused by evacuating 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The classic definition of chutzpah is murdering your parents and begging for the mercy of the court because you're an orphan. Adding thousands of settlers to existing communities so that later you can claim that evacuating them would be too great a trauma could be another definition.

It's OK to build inside existing settlements. Recently, Israeli officials have claimed that there was an understanding, partly oral, with the Bush administration that construction could continue within or next to the built-up areas of settlements. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says there's no record of such an agreement. The kindest reading of the dispute is that what Washington saw as a discussion, Jerusalem interpreted as an agreement.

But if former President George W. Bush did agree to building within existing settlements, he didn't grasp the issue. One reason for building is to increase the size of settlements, and therefore the area that Israel will keep. Another is to increase the number of people in settlements, so that evacuation looks more difficult. Building within the existing area of settlements doesn't serve the first purpose -- but it serves the second purpose well.

The bottom line is that all settlement construction is political. The natural growth argument is a ruse meant to disguise the real goal: determining the future of the territory before anyone has a chance to negotiate. If Netanyahu has really learned something from recent tensions, he won't repeat the ruse in his speech on Sunday.