Jewish settlers stand behind an orange Star of David at entrance of Jewish settlement of Shirat Hayam, August 8, 2005.
Goran Tomasevic / Courtesy Reuters

For the first time in over 15 years, Israel may soon form a coalition government that is composed solely of right-wing factions. This could have major implications for settlement expansion. After all, both of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous governments (2009–2013 and 2013–2015) included center-left parties that opposed settlement expansion outside areas that—according to past negotiations and in any realistic future peace accord—would end up as part of Israel. That is, his governments allowed population growth to expand freely in the major settlement blocs that Israel is expected to keep, but they constrained growth in the smaller settlements beyond Israel’s security barrier, which would likely be part of any future Palestinian state.

In the years to come, though, the United States might have to contend with a new policy. During Netanyahu’s past six years as prime minister, his settlement policy has been the subject of great controversy and contradiction. On the one hand, the United States and Europe frequently criticized the policy as expanding Israeli presence in the West Bank. On the other, right-wing constituencies in Israel lashed out at Netanyahu for doing the exact opposite—implementing a “quiet freeze” policy that effectively halted Israeli construction outside of Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs.

Netanyahu’s policy allowed him to enjoy the best of both worlds—but also suffer the worst of them. On the positive side for Netanyahu, constant critiques by the international community (because there was considerable construction in East Jerusalem and the major blocs) solidified his position as the irreplaceable leader of the Israeli right leading up to his reelection. Meanwhile, his constraints on construction beyond the security fence kept alive the option of a two-state solution and encouraged peace hopefuls, such as State Secretary John F. Kerry, to stay engaged. On the negative side, Netanyahu’s equivocation bought him the distrust and scorn of many, in Israel and abroad, on the left and right. As a result, he is surprisingly unpopular for someone who just won a solid reelection victory.

An Israeli soldier casts his ballot for the parliamentary election behind a mobile voting booth in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Migdalim, near Ariel, March 17, 2015.
Amir Cohen / Courtesy Reuters

In truth, it turns out to be remarkably difficult to discern what is actually going on outside the blocs. Although even The New York Times acknowledged that settlement expansion under Netanyahu was relatively restrained, the Times, like many others, failed to distinguish between expansion that is taking place within the major settlement blocs and construction in settlements that are beyond the fence.

To get our own sense of the numbers, we looked at data from Israel’s recent (March 17, 2015) elections, which suggest a slow but steady increase in settler population beyond the security fence. Specifically, when Netanyahu entered office in February 2009, there were 36,476 eligible Israeli voters living in the 72 Israeli townships outside the fence. By March 2015, that number had grown to 46,659, showing a 27 percent increase. Given that, according to a recent census, the median age of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria was 18, we estimate that the actual number of residents in those towns is approximately twice the number of voters—meaning 73,000 in 2009 and 93,000 in 2015, an increase of about 3,300 per year. (The census provided only regional population aggregates, combining small settlements and major blocs.)

Of course, these are estimates. The true picture is not easy to discover. What is clear is that the population growth in settlements outside the fence seems to have outstripped national growth. If these trends continue, by the end of Netanyahu’s new term as prime minister, in 2019, the population in the settlements beyond the fence will have reached around 115,000.

Why this growth is happening is a puzzle, since there has been no deliberate policy or government push to expand settlements; on the contrary, there have been official constraints. The government has officially approved only 9,197 residential construction permits in the entirety of Judea and Samaria (i.e., the entire West Bank including the major blocs, excluding Jerusalem) in the six years since Netanyahu took office in 2009. Approximately two-thirds of those units approved were built inside the major blocs. That means only 500 or so units were approved each year for construction outside the settlement blocs.

How do 500 new units each year support 3,300 new residents? That’s not clear, but it appears that part of the explanation lies in local municipal policies. At the local level in the smaller settlements, families are encouraged to expand their existing homes with adjacent “rental units” that do not require formal government approval. These units are then handed out to young family members or members of the community. So in addition to the formal “housing starts,” there is informal construction that accommodates more people. And some of this increase is natural growth in the sense that the new residents are closely related family members of older residents.

If this description is right, it has several implications. First, the peace map isn’t really changing; contrary to common accusations, Israel isn’t expanding its hold on territory. The settlements are growing in population but not in physical dimensions. There are new units attached to older ones, not entire new neighborhoods being carved out of barren land. On the other hand, however, the population living outside the major blocs is growing by several thousand Israelis each year, which makes a future peace agreement more costly and more politically difficult as time goes by, because more Israelis would theoretically have to be forced or induced to move.

Jewish settlers take part in a general drill to protect their unauthorized outpost of Havat Gilad, south of the West Bank city.
Jewish settlers take part in a general drill to protect their unauthorized outpost of Havat Gilad, south of the West Bank city of Nablus, September 19, 2011.
Nir Elias / Reuters

The interesting question now is whether Netanyahu’s next government will be able to continue this slow-growth policy (one might almost call it “benign neglect”), or will be pushed to make the prime minister shift gears.

The answer will depend on the identity of Netanyahu’s senior ministers. Control of the West Bank and settlement policy there falls mainly on the minister of defense and the minister of interior, two positions that pro-settler parties are seeking. Netanyahu and his likely coalition partners are still negotiating over all portfolios, and the ultimate result will have great bearing on the next government’s character. In any composition, however (save that of an unlikely unity government with Labor), a more permissive construction policy is likely both for ideological reasons and as part of an attempt to lower the price of housing throughout the country, a top agenda item in Israeli politics nowadays.

Netanyahu will have to choose among several policy options. He could try to maneuver and fend off international pressures for a few more years, kicking the can down the road. Given the chaos in the Middle East now, the dangers of Hamas and jihadist activity in an independent Palestine, and the refusal of the current Palestinian leadership to accept even the generous peace offer from then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, an independent Palestinian state seems to most observers to be far off anyway. That would suggest a policy like the one Netanyahu has pursued for the last six years. Alternatively, he could yield to pressures within his right-wing coalition and permit faster growth of the small settlements beyond Israel’s security fence.

The United States, whose goal is the two-state solution, will have to adjust to either policy. Even at current population growth rates, the idea of over 100,000 Israelis living outside the major settlement blocs may render the Clinton parameters for a peace agreement increasingly irrelevant. The idea of evacuating every Israeli living beyond the security fence will seem increasingly unrealistic. The United States may be forced to move, then, from insisting on their removal to challenging the Palestinian insistence that every single one of them leave. That old idea that Palestine must be totally free of Jews has always been morally offensive; with every passing year it also becomes more and more impractical. It could gradually be replaced with the understanding that a certain number of Jews will remain as resident aliens if a Palestinian state is ever to be established. With 1.7 million Arabs living as full citizens in Israel, the idea of tens of thousands of Jews living in Palestine should not seem beyond consideration. Security arrangements for Israelis who voluntarily choose to live in a Palestinian state rather than move back to Israel would be immensely complicated, and in many eyes impossible. But the same can be said about any plan that would force tens of thousands of them leave their homes.

With no Palestinian state likely for the foreseeable future, much more attention should be dedicated to real life on the ground today: Hamas’ activities in Gaza, the performance of the Palestinian Authority and its institutions, the lack of democratic institutions and free elections, current security arrangements, measures to help the West Bank economy, for example. The sole focus on getting back to the negotiating table is at odds with reality in the Middle East.

Yet sooner or later, the question of how many Israelis live in the West Bank, and what future they will have, will return. Israel’s new coalition must be formed by early May, although policy toward the settlements may emerge more slowly—and, as we have seen, deciphering what’s actually happening on the ground in the West Bank won’t be easy. But it would help if all parties, including the U.S. and Israeli governments, spoke more candidly and more realistically about the realities, and the choices, that Israelis, Palestinians, and American policymakers now face.

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