Analysis: Israel announces settlement expansion

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week approved the construction and planning of 2551 housing units in the West Bank. The decision followed an earlier announcement approving 566 homes beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem. The announcement was met with noticeable silence from the Trump administration when the White House declined to comment on the matter at a press briefing on Tuesday. The Palestinian Authority called the announcement a “deliberate provocation by Israel making a mockery of the international community”. The European Union stated that the new housing units would “further seriously undermine the prospects for a viable two-state solution”. UK Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood condemned the building of new settlement homes.

Israeli leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog condemned what he called “rampant construction”. For Netanyahu, this move was an attempt to placate his pro-settler coalition partners who have been calling for expansion ever since Trump’s election. However, a closer look at the announcement reveals that most, though certainly not all, of the new housing units will be located in settlements close to the Green Line that would almost certainly become part of Israel in a future peace agreement. Of the 909 new homes that have been given direct permission for construction, 807 are in areas either on or near the Green Line: 552 in Givat Ze’ev, a town north-west of Jerusalem; 90 in Maale Adumin; 87 in Beitar Ililt; and 78 in Alfie Menashe. However, of the 1642 units that have been forwarded to a preliminary planning phase, 899 are in the city of Ariel deep in the West Bank. A further 450 are in Zufim and Oranit on the Green Line. The building of settlements is widely believed to be illegal under international law.

The location of the new housing units mean this announcement may not be a game-changer when it comes to the scope of the settlement issue. The decision to build predominantly near the Green Line speaks to a broader debate on to what extent Israeli settlements are a remediable problem when it comes to drawing borders between an Israeli and Palestinian state. The principle of land swaps, where Israeli settlements on or near the Green Line would become part of Israel in return for Israeli land being allocated to a Palestinian state elsewhere, has formed part of all negotiations since the Clinton parameters were published in 2000. A significant majority of the settler population live in areas that do not obstruct the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state and thus would fall under any land swap agreement. As the Washington Post noted last month, 80% of settlement growth in the past eight years was in areas that would be annexed to Israel in a future agreement.

Conversely, former US Secretary of State John Kerry identified a figure of 90,000 settlers who live beyond the West Bank separation barrier who live “in the middle of what, by any reasonable definition, would be the future Palestinian state.” However, in previous negotiations Israel reportedly agreed to the evacuation of 63 settlements in return for a comprehensive peace deal, and 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank were evacuated in 2005.

Even if the settlement issue were resolved, peace would still be a long way away. On this John Kerry was clear. “Let me emphasize”, he said, that “this is not to say that the settlements are the whole or even the primary cause of this conflict. Of course they are not.” The fear is, however, that under pressure from his hard-line coalition partners and unrestrained by the Trump administration, Netanyahu will be forced into a more radical position of permitting building in settlements which severely undermine a two-state solution, or possibly even annexing settlements such as Ma’ale Adumin. Indeed, the Yesha Council, the representative body for Israeli settlers, called this week’s announcement a “disappointment”, claiming that most of the planned units would not be built. That their fears would be realised would, in fact, be the best outcome to advocates of a two-state solution.