These days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing strong criticism from an unlikely corner. In a private meeting this past May, the leaders of several settlements accused him of stymieing the settlement enterprise. His response, that Israel had to “consider international constraints," was not well received.

Soon after the meeting, on May 29, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics issued a report that supported the settlers' claims. In the first quarter of 2014, the bureau reported, the Israeli government had approved only 232 residential units for construction in the area that Israelis commonly call Judea and Samaria and most people know as the West Bank. That rate is roughly half that of the last decade, which saw an average of 1,687 units built each year. And given that existing settlements currently house roughly 350,000 Israeli citizens -- who have an annual birthrate of about four percent -- this slower rate of construction can hardly sustain even natural population growth. The community leaders who met with Netanyahu last week know that better than anyone.

A geographic analysis of the data, moreover, suggests that the settlers have an additional reason to worry: under Netanyahu's current government, construction outside the so-called major settlement blocs -- the areas most likely to remain part of Israel in a final peace settlement -- has steadily decreased. Over the past five years, the number of homes approved for construction in the smaller settlements has amounted to half of what it was during Netanyahu's first premiership in 1996–99. Moreover, the homes the government is now approving for construction are positioned further west, mostly in the major blocs or in areas adjacent to the so-called Green Line, the de facto border separating Israel from the West Bank. The 1,500 units that Israel announced plans for earlier this month were also in the major blocs and in East Jerusalem, continuing the pattern. 

Although there is no agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on precisely which settlements constitute Israeli blocs, a clearer definition is coming into focus. Both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have accepted the principle of equitable land swaps, as have Riyadh and Washington. Israel's most expansive definition of the blocs is drawn by its security barrier, and Israelis generally do not refer to anything east of the fence as being permanently Israeli. Using that demarcation as a border would count 12 percent of the West Bank and 80 percent of the settlements as Israeli territory. Most Israelis would accept everything east of that -- 88 percent of the land -- as part of a future Palestinian state.

The Palestinian definition of what can be swapped is more difficult to determine, and the best proxy is a leaked map from Palestinian–Israeli negotiations in 2008. According to that document, which was never officially renounced, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered Israel some two percent of the West Bank, which included 70 percent of the Israeli settler population. To be sure, then, the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian definitions of the blocs remains significant. But more worthy of attention is the fact that Israeli construction is now concentrated in Jerusalem and the major blocs -- in the two percent of the West Bank territory that the Palestinian leadership was apparently willing to accept as Israeli in 2008. 

The Israelis are still constructing beyond the security fence and in areas inside the fence that will undoubtedly be hotly contested in any future negotiation over a final agreement. But there is a paradox in the increasingly frequent denunciations of Israeli construction in the United States and Europe: they are coming at the same time as Israeli construction has become increasingly limited to areas that even Palestinians acknowledge will ultimately remain part of Israel.

All this underscores why the Obama administration's approach to the peace process during its first five years has resoundingly failed. By demanding a total settlement freeze, Washington wasted precious diplomatic capital trying to halt construction in areas where settlement building did little to change the status quo. Seeking a quick but comprehensive peace agreement under these conditions was foolish policy. Moving forward, a more sensible approach would be to stop obsessing about construction and aim for tangible achievements, especially given the apparent shift in Israeli activity. 

Accusations that Netanyahu is reluctant to negotiate for peace bury the true headline: that his government has unilaterally reduced Israeli settlement construction and largely constrained it to a narrow segment of territory. This might well be the signal that Israel's historical settlement enterprise is nearing its end, and whatever its reasons -- international pressures, demographic fears, or a shift in public opinion -- it is a trend that deserves U.S. attention. At the very least, American and European condemnations of Israeli settlement activity should be replaced with comments that reflect this new reality. Israel is still constructing, but not in a way that will prevent a realistic peace settlement.

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  • ELLIOTT ABRAMS is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. deputy national security adviser. URI SADOT is a research associate in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. 
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