Housing starts in settlements in 2014 dropped 52 percent compared to the previous year, according to Central Bureau of Statistics figures released Tuesday as the Likud and Bayit Yehudi parties vied for right-wing votes by showcasing their strong support for Judea and Samaria.
To help shore up that support ahead of the March 17 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew by helicopter Tuesday morning to the IDF headquarters in Judea and Samaria, located between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Beit El settlement.
Outside of preventing a nuclear Iran, Netanyahu said, “an additional thing that is fateful to Israel’s future and the security of its citizens is our presence here in Judea and Samaria.”
As he stood next to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, he issued a modified version of the statement he made earlier in the week, that in the current reality, Israel could not withdraw from territory or make concessions to the Palestinians.
“The activity of the IDF and the security services is essential to prevent a takeover by radical elements that would certainly attack Israel and threaten our communities and our people, and would also threaten the Palestinian Authority and take control of the Palestinian public,” Netanyahu said.
“We will continue to act in a way that would preserve Israel’s security and prevent radical Islamic forces from taking over the area,” he said.
But when it comes to actual building within West Bank settlements, Netanyahu’s track record as prime minister in the past six years has been worse than that of the previous six years, when the country was led by Ariel Sharon and then by Ehud Olmert.
According to CBS data, housing starts in West Bank settlements were down by 19% when comparing the two periods, from 11,366 units between 2003 and 2008, to 9,216 between 2009 and 2014, during Netanyahu’s premiership. This data does not include construction in Jerusalem beyond the pre-1967 lines.
Netanyahu’s return to office in 2009, after having lost the premiership to Ehud Barak in 1998, started off strong in West Bank construction, with 1,963 housing starts. But the figure immediately plunged into its worst year in decades when the prime minister issued a 10-month moratorium on housing starts from November 2009 through September 2010.
The number of starts remained low until 2013, during the US-led peace process, when ground was broken for 2,829 homes. However, CBS data released Tuesday showed that in 2014, as the peace process fell apart, the number of starts plunged to 1,344, dropping by 52% over the previous year, compared to the countrywide dip of 7.9%.
Similarly, Netanyahu’s record on the number of finished settler homes showed a 15% drop when compared to the six years before he took office, according to CBS data.
From 2009 to 2014, 9,715 homes were finished in West Bank settlements compared with 11,425 homes from 2003 to 2008, according to the CBS.
Netanyahu started strong in 2009, with 2,059 finished homes.
But those numbers dipped down to 1,270 in 2012 and then surged upward.
In 2014, according to CBS data, the 1,580 finished settler homes – compared to 1,454 in 2013 – reflected an 8% hike compared to a 5% rise in the rest of the country.
According to a February study by left-wing NGO Peace Now, however, Netanyahu’s record on building tenders in West Bank settlements in the last six years was stronger than that of his predecessors.
From 2003 to 2008, tenders were issued for 4,530 homes in West Bank settlements, compared to the issuance of 5,711 tenders from 2009 to 2014.
The Peace Now study also showed that Netanyahu’s record on this matter was much better in his third term, when he issued 3,702 tenders compared to 2009 in his second term.
The numbers were particularly high in the third term because Netanyahu linked the issuance of tenders to the three releases of Palestinian prisoners in 2013.
Peace Now executive director Yariv Oppenheimer said it was a mistake to focus on whether Netanyahu built more or less than his predecessors or to read to much into the 52% drop in housing starts.
The number of new homes in 2013 was unusually high according to the CBS, so clearly there would be a decline, he said.
The problem is that Netanyahu’s building record is harmful to the peace process and comes at a time when what is needed to end the conflict is a settlement freeze.
“Every house in the West Bank has a political meaning and Netanyahu is still far away from freezing settlement activity,” Oppenheimer said.
The spokesman for Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) said that the CBS data from 2014 did not fully reflect all the steps that he had taken to bolster the settlement enterprise.
Ariel, who became construction minister in 2013, marketed 1,100 homes in Judea and Samaria in 2013 and another 2,400 units in 2014.
As a result, there should be a jump in new settler homes this year, the spokesman said. Ariel’s actions, the spokesman added, show that only a strong Bayit Yehudi party can ensure the continued growth of Judea and Samaria.