Analysis: Settlement growth is not just baby talk

A settlement 'freeze' would require forbidding Jews from moving to West Bank communities, something no Israeli leader has ever done.

Two critical terms - "settlement freeze" and "natural growth" - were absent from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's policy address on Sunday. Netanyahu might have given a nod in the direction of a Palestinian state, but he deftly rejected the Obama's administration call for a freeze in settlement activity. He did not even meet the US halfway, by speaking of the need for "natural growth," in the settlements, as many Israeli politicians have in the last few months as the Obama administration has been increasingly vocal in its demand that Israel stop settlement activity. Instead, Netanyahu spoke of "the need to allow residents [settlers] to live their normal lives, to allow mothers and fathers to raise their children like families elsewhere." Indeed, the Prime Minister's Office has consistently rejected the term "natural growth," as being too difficult to define. Sources close to former prime minister Ehud Olmert said that he never used the term either. Netanyahu's remarks left settler leaders with the belief Monday morning that Netanyahu would sanction growth within the current boundaries of the settlements. The Central Bureau of Statistics, an apolitical body, characterizes the growth in any community within Israel in three ways: "natural increase," "internal migration" and "immigration." In the first, the CBS employs the strictest definition possible, which is births minus deaths. The second category, migration, when applied to the settlements, means Israelis who moved into the settlements from within sovereign Israel. Immigration refers to olim who moved to settlements straight from abroad. This amounts to only one percent or less of settler growth in any given year. By using this definition, it is possible to see, based on numbers from the CBS compiled by The Jerusalem Post, that throughout all the ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating processes, from Oslo (1993) to Annapolis (2007) and beyond, the Jewish population of Judea and Samaria (and Gaza, until 2005) has always increased at well beyond its "natural" growth rate. While the extent of the migration has decreased, it remains well beyond that of the international community's demand, so that the population in the settlements, not including those Jerusalem areas annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, has risen by some 170,000 since the start of the Oslo process, when it stood at 116,300. During 1993, for instance, CBS statistics show that, at a time when the settler population was at 116,300, 70% of the 10,900 population hike, 7,600 people, was due to migration. In 1995 "migrant" newcomers accounted for 62.9% of settlement population growth and births for 37%. With some fluctuation that pattern held steady during the 1990s, dropping slightly in 2000, when the newcomers and births accounted for 56.9% and 43.1%, respectively. Then, in 2001, the pattern shifted abruptly. The migration/birth ration flipped, with only 34% of growth coming from newcomers and 66% from births. Since that time, births, rather than migration, has been the main cause of the settlement population growth. In 2007, the Jewish population of Judea and Samaria grew by 14,500, or 5.6% - from 261,600 to 276,100 - close to three times the growth rate of Israel's general population, which rose by only 1.8% during that same year. The "natural growth" was 9,200, or 63.5%, with the remaining 5,300, or 36.5%, constituting migrants. Since 1995, Jewish birth rates in the territories have been higher, and death rates lower, than in any CBS-defined region within the Green Line. But even as the number of births went up from 3,300 in 1993 to 9,200 in 2007, the number of migrants dropped from 7,700 in 1993 to 5,300 in 2007. In more concrete terms, every day about 25 new babies are born to Jewish families in the West Bank, another dozen or so Israelis move into homes there and workmen finish up five new apartments. But that growth is far from even: out of 120 settlements, only three are growing at a significant rate, and only 22 are growing at a rate of more than 100 people in any given year. Out of those 22, the ratio of migration to birth varies widely. In the religious Beit El settlement, located 13.5 kilometers over the Green Line, the entire population increase from 5,100 in 2006 to 5,300 in 2007, was due to births. In contrast, in the secular Oranit settlement, located on the Green Line, 58% of the population increase from 5,800 in 2006 to 6,000 in 2007, was from migration. Similarly, in the three large West Bank cities, which accounted for 54% of all settler growth in 2007, and whose combined population amounted to 103,248, migration played a key role. Migration in that year in Ma'aleh Adumim was at 52%, in Betar Illit at 48% and Modi'in Illit at 34%. But given that work began on 600 new apartments in Modi'in Illit in 2008, the number of migrants in that city is likely to record a rise in 2008 and 2009. Betar Illit and Modi'in Illit are both located less then a kilometer away from the Green Line and Ma'aleh Adumim is located 4.5 kilometers from that pre-1967 border. Successive Israeli governments have argued that the US tacitly endorses Jewish population growth in these areas. This argument is based in part on an April 2004 letter from then-president George W. Bush to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, which stated that, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already-existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion." However, the Obama administration has rejected this assertion, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating flatly over the weekend that the US did not acknowledge any binding understandings to this effect. But Netanyahu spoke on Sunday night as if the Bush letter was still intact. He restated what has been a decade-long policy of the part of Israeli governments, that no new settlements would be created. (The last of the 120 formally established settlements, Negohot, in the South Hebron Hills, was founded in 1999.) Netanyahu added what had been the understanding with Washington since at least 2003, that additional land would not be expropriated for settlements. Although that line was taken by settlers to mean he had no plans to legalize outposts, at the same time, he did make any mention of the outposts, despite the threats that have come out of the Defense Ministry in recent weeks to remove them. His remarks, or lack thereof, on settlements left a lot of room for interpretation, with some settler leaders like Dani Dayan and Pinchas Wallerstein hoping that this now meant they would get new construction permits for their communities. While population numbers show that growth is already minimal in at least 95 settlements, and of those, 21 are static or in decline, it might sound as if Netanyahu would not have to do much to go the rest of the way. But to meet fully Obama's demand he would have to forcibly impose a moratorium on migration to West Bank communities, something no Israeli government has ever done. In particular, he would have to target those settlements which Israel believes it would retain in any future peace deal. Even former US president Jimmy Carter, one of the more fierce American critics of the settlement movement, acknowledged on Sunday, that a peace agreement with the Palestinians would not necessarily mean a full return to the pre-1967 border. But although he made sure Monday to explain that this did not mean he endorsed any further growth in the settlements, Israeli leaders like Netanyahu and those before him have been loath to accept that they need to freeze vibrant communities they plan to retain. This understanding, while sure to irk the Americans, did little to assuage the fears of some settlers, who have noted that in spite of his brave words to the Americans, Netanyahu has not managed to approve a single apartment project in the West Bank since taking office. Esther Karish, of the Samaria Citizen's Committee, said that given how little growth is actually occurring in the bulk of West Bank settlements, it is as if a Palestinian state is already evolving on the ground.