Everything You Know About Israeli Settlements Is Wrong

Israel’s recent annexation of 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank doesn’t change anything on the ground, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has actually been remarkably constrained in settlement construction.

On Aug. 31, Israel laid claim to 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank. The land is in Gush Etzion -- an area predominantly populated by Jews since before 1948 and one that both American and Palestinian leaders recognized in past negotiations would remain part of Israel in any future agreement. With its new formal status as "state land," the area is legally open for new construction.

The knee-jerk condemnations immediately followed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to convince him to reverse the decision, which the State Department termed "counterproductive." The British foreign secretary deplored Israel's "particularly ill-judged" decision, while the Palestinian Authority threatened that it "will lead to more instability ... inflam[ing] the situation." The New York Times quoted an official with the dovish Peace Now organization as saying it could be the single largest annexation of land in decades.

So is Israel vastly increasing the pace of settlement activity, making the establishment of a future Palestinian state less and less likely?

The short answer, and the right answer, is no. Just as Israel was being denounced far and wide for settlement expansion, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics released one of its regular reports on settlement activity. What it reveals is that Israel's actual settlement construction pace has reached a historical low. Only 507 housing units were approved for construction by Netanyahu's government in the first six months of 2014, a 71.9 percent decrease from the same period in 2013, with about one-third of those being built inside the major blocks that it is understood Israel will keep in any final status agreement. For a population of over 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank, that pace of construction does not even allow for natural population growth, much less rapid expansion.

Only in 2010 did Israel build at a slower pace -- 738 units for the whole year -- and that was the year of a nine-month construction moratorium imposed by Netanyahu at the request of the United States. This partial freeze, by the way, produced no Palestinian concessions and no progress in the "peace process" whatsoever.

What's Netanyahu doing? His government's pattern in recent years is clear: build energetically in the major settlement blocks and in Jerusalem, while restraining growth beyond the West Bank security fence in areas that may become part of a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu doesn't come out and say this clearly for a simple political reason: The settler lobby would condemn it and indeed is already threatening him with political revenge for restraining settlement growth. British and U.S. diplomats, as well as the American and European press, may be fooled by Palestinian and Peace Now complaints that Bibi is gobbling up Palestinian territory, but the settlers live in those places and know better -- construction is slowing down.

Netanyahu is trying to avoid a confrontation with hawkish members of his coalition and his right-wing political base in the Likud party. Going too far on curbing settlements might lead Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett -- his two main right-wing rivals, and the foreign and economy ministers, respectively -- to leave the current government, a scenario that would force Netanyahu to assemble a new coalition using a very weak hand. If that scenario played out, Netanyahu would also be challenged by the diminished support within his own Likud party, which could at some point oust the prime minister from his political home more or less as then- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in 2005. While this pressure from the right and the settler movement may be behind his move in creating new "state land" in Gush Etzion, Netanyahu has notably maintained his policy on constraining settlement construction beyond the fence line.

At the end of the day, the annexation is a symbolic move. Those lands are going to remain Israel's no matter what: They are populated by some 20,000 Israelis, adjacent to the pre-1967 border, and were recognized in previous negotiations as part of the areas Israel would keep and for which it would swap Israeli land elsewhere. Most recently, the leaked "napkin map" of the 2008 negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas marked all 1,000 acres as falling under eventual Israeli control.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is playing a losing game, as the settlers know how little was changed by his action and that he continues to slow settlement construction outside the major blocks. But meanwhile, foreign leaders and journalists do not know the facts, so Netanyahu gets condemned for a vast expansion of settlement construction that does not exist.

It's a lose-lose situation for Bibi, as nasty attacks from settler leaders coincide with those from prime ministers, foreign ministers, and presidents across the globe. The Israeli prime minister deserves credit, under these circumstances, for sticking to what he has said and appears to believe: Israel must build where it will stay, in Jerusalem and the major blocks, and it is foolish to waste resources in West Bank areas it will someday leave.

At this point, the mindless refrain on settlement construction seems to have assumed a life of its own. But anyone who's serious about addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should ignore the speeches and the rote condemnations, and study the numbers. The vast expansion of Israeli settlements in the future Palestinian state is simply not happening.



A United Front

Only a strong NATO can stop Putin, and only America can rally NATO.

NATO's heads of state are beginning their summit in Wales -- what a doozy of a meeting this could and should be.

Ukraine is on the agenda because it is in Europe and is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace. The Islamic State is, too, because it is -- as summit host British Prime Minister David Cameron said recently -- "a terrorist organization … seeking to establish and then violently expand its own terrorist state." It is a threat to the region, generally, and to Turkey (a NATO member whose south borders both Syria and Iraq), specifically. There will also be intense discussions about budget contributions and decision-making processes. And Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen should be thanked for his leadership. His five years of service at the helm have included critical NATO engagement in Afghanistan and Libya, and he continues to be an outspoken leader, especially in facing down Russia's provocations and arguing for a stronger alliance.

NATO was created in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union. In 1991, the USSR disintegrated and NATO began to expand. In the years that followed, NATO's expansion brought new partners to the fight against terrorism and provided security reform and reassurance to countries emerging from decades of conquest, occupation, and socialist misrule. Without NATO expansion, EU expansion would be more difficult, and Central Europe would be less prosperous and secure.

During this time, NATO's approach to Russia evolved as well. When I was U.S. secretary of state, we supported the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and I personally said to President Boris Yeltsin that if they wanted to, and fulfilled the requirements, we could welcome them into the alliance. The NATO-Russia Council was created. We were looking forward to a time of cooperation, with Russia playing a global power role as a guarantor of the international system, as when it helped enforce international norms against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and throughout the 1990s.

Unfortunately, President Vladimir Putin chose a different path. When the NATO summit in Wales was originally announced on Nov. 15, 2013, it was meant to focus on Afghanistan, 21st-century threats (such as cybersecurity), and alliance modernization (to include equitable burden-sharing -- NATO, after all, is not a charitable organization). Who would have predicted that one of the main topics would be the Russian invasion of Ukraine? The question now is how the most powerful alliance in the history of the world will react to such a blatant violation of international norms and principles, the first invasion of a country in Europe since World War II.

With the Soviet Union's demise in 1991, there was a legitimate question about the relevance of an alliance whose purpose no longer existed. In 2009, as NATO celebrated its 60th anniversary, leaders established a group of experts to advise on a new Strategic Concept. I was the U.S. representative, and Rasmussen asked me to chair the group of 11 other national experts. We submitted our recommendations, and a new Strategic Concept was adopted in Lisbon in 2010.

Our analysis and recommendations included reaffirming NATO's core commitment of collective defense, protecting against unconventional threats, establishing guidelines for operations outside alliance borders, establishing a new mission for missile defense, addressing new military capabilities, responding to the rising danger of cyberattacks, reviewing our nuclear weapons policy and preventing nuclear proliferation, engaging Russia, and entering a new era of partnerships.

The group of experts not only recognized the changing conditions of the times, but also looked for lessons learned from NATO's involvement in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Most interesting was our examination of the Partnership for Peace (PfP), a mechanism to involve aspiring members in military exercises. In addition to the PfP, we saw that NATO had more partners than members in other parts of the world -- a very big club of countries with similar values.

This lesson is crucial as we look at ways for the alliance to respond to the dual challenges on its eastern border and in the Middle East. It would be a betrayal of our common values to let Russia's illegal behavior pass and allow Putin and his government to lie about what they are doing. There should be a decision out of Cardiff for more robust partnership exercises in and around Ukraine. Lethal military equipment should be on offer, as well as enhanced intelligence and border security assistance. And we cannot forget about Kiev -- there are immense domestic challenges Ukraine's new government must tackle for the results of Maidan to hold. On a positive note, the IMF has voted to release more assistance for Ukraine. This trend must continue.

If we allow Putin to get away with what he is doing, he will not only keep chewing away at pieces of a sovereign country, but also feel emboldened to destabilize other countries on Russia's western border.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivered important, forceful remarks in Tallinn on Wednesday, telling the people of Estonia -- and Latvia and Lithuania -- that they are protected by Article 5 of the NATO charter, saying that their defense is just as important as the defense of Berlin or Paris. He reiterated that all of us in this trans-Atlantic alliance stand with the people of Ukraine. And he reminded us that NATO is an alliance of democracies and open markets -- whose strength is derived from our core values -- "not aimed 'against' any other nation" but still committed to collective defense, and that remains open to new members.

It is imperative the leaders in Cardiff decide to strengthen NATO troops in the Baltics and make sure Americans are always among them. The (expected) agreement on a rapid-response force as part of a readiness action plan, to include pre-positioning of equipment and supplies, is also critical.

Only the U.S. president can rally the alliance. And only his unwavering advocacy, especially with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, can set the alliance on a constructive path. Putin has escalated an invasion to demonstrate strength, and only NATO has the ability to show him that his escalation cannot bring a lasting victory. The U.S. president can make clear what Russia has at stake as well. Putin says he wants Russia accepted as a global power. If Russia refuses to accept basic tenets of today's international system, it can only be a regional power, grasping at what it can take, and will never achieve influence where it cannot use force. Russia's behavior is a game-changer in the post-World War II world. We need to step up our game to make sure that Putin's rules do not govern the 21st century.

The Islamic State is also a game-changer. As Cameron said, "The ambition to create an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and Syria is a threat to our own security" in the United Kingdom and, I would add, Europe and the United States. While our group of experts was careful not to involve the alliance in mission creep, in our assessment of threats we included the ambitions of international terrorist groups and the persistence of corrosive regional, national, ethnic, and religious rivalries. We made clear that the alliance has an interest in promoting security and stability beyond its immediate borders. That mission would be carried out with partners, including those around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. Obama is dispatching U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to rally partners for just such a mission.

Cardiff offers the opportunity to deliver several messages. To Russia: You cannot lie your way out of what you are doing, but when you respect international norms, you will be a respected member of the international community. To the Islamic State: There is no place for your barbarism in the 21st century, and you will never be recognized as a legitimate body. To the world: NATO is relevant and united.

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