Far from severely limiting settlement growth, Israel’s ostensible new policy of restraint, announced by officials in Jerusalem a week ago, would actually seem to allow for massive construction in the West Bank. It involves vaguely defined frameworks, allows for departures even from those vague frameworks, and — seven days later — has yet to be formally confirmed in any case.
Speaking anonymously last Friday morning, officials announced the government’s new policy as constituting self-imposed restrictions that will “significantly limit the expansion of settlements beyond the footprint of existing settlements.”
Proclaiming that the government was respecting US President Donald Trump’s concerns over unfettered settlement construction, and in order to “allow for the advancement of the peace process,” the officials unofficially committed the government to building only “within previously developed areas.” Wherever this proved impossible for legal or technical reasons, the officials added, construction would stay close to the “existing construction line.” In addition, they said, Israel was promising not to establish new communities in the West Bank or to annex existing settlements.
The new guidelines — detailed hours after ministers had voted to approve a single new settlement for the evacuees of the demolished illegal Amona outpost — were said to have been issued in coordination with the US administration.
But what was initially seen in some quarters as a significant concession by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is increasingly regarded by others as a misleading PR stunt.
“The truth is that Netanyahu is bluffing; the new policy does not represent restraint, but rather it gives a green light to a construction surge that will severely hinder the possibility of a two-state solution,” Hagit Ofran, a veteran analyst of settlement growth for Peace Now, wrote Thursday in the Haaretz daily. “If it’s permissible to build in the built-up area, adjacent to it and close to it — then, in practice, it’s possible to build everywhere,” she argued.
Any restriction on building in the Jewish people’s biblical Judean and Samarian heartland is indeed a potentially risky step for Netanyahu, who heads what is arguably the country’s most right-wing government ever. And the fact that last week’s guidelines have yet to be formally announced, posted on any government website, or publicly confirmed by Netanyahu, may indicate how greatly he worries about his hawkish coalition partners publicly opposing any official talk of a settlement curb or slowdown.
But neither the nationalist Jewish Home party nor the influential pro-settlement Yesha Council have protested the new guidelines, either, in the days that have followed the announcement. Rather, they hailed what they saw as a tacit White House green light to build an unlimited number of new housing units in any existing settlement.
‘This agreement allows the Israeli government to build as much as they want’
Indeed, while adhering to those vague parameters such as “footprint” and “previously developed areas,” Israel can theoretically build tens of thousands of new housing units in or adjacent to East Jerusalem and at 131 government-recognized settlements across the West Bank.
“Theoretically, this agreement allows the Israeli government to build as much as they want. It’s basically unlimited,” Ofran told The Times of Israel on Thursday.
Israel’s pledge not to expand the “footprint” of existing settlements is meaningless, as this term has never been formally defined and could be interpreted by Israel as to enable it to grab large swathes of land, she argued.
Israel “has been in this movie before,” she said, referring to a similar agreement to rein in settlement growth that Washington and Jerusalem sought to strike more than a decade ago.
In 2004, then-US president George W. Bush acknowledged that Israel would retain the settlement blocs in any future peace agreement and dispatched his ambassador in Tel Aviv, Dan Kurtzer, to negotiate with Israel about a mechanism to regulate construction in the remaining areas of the West Bank.
In a letter to then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, prime minister Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff Dov Weisglass vowed to make an effort to “have a better definition of the construction line of settlements in Judea and Samaria.”
The Israeli and American teams agreed that they would “review aerial photos of settlements and will jointly define the construction line of each of the settlements,” according to the letter.
Kurtzer negotiated with Weisglass and a retired IDF brigadier general, Baruch Spiegel, on where exactly Israel would be allowed to build.
“But our discussions went nowhere,” Kurtzer recalled in an interview Thursday. “The technical issues involved in these matters are enormously complex. Every settlement has an amount of territory allocated to it that is much larger than its actual footprint,” he said, referring to a community’s municipal boundaries. “And within the footprint of each settlement, there are a variety of ways to define what a construction line is.”
For instance, the American and Israeli negotiating teams could not agree on whether “construction line” refers only to houses or also to agricultural facilities, buildings in industrial zones, gas stations or grocery stores located at the entrance of a settlement or between two settlements, Kurtzer said. How these terms are defined makes a dramatic difference regarding how much land can be used for building, he noted.
“Once you include anything beyond a settlement’s houses, you are increasing the amount of territory taken up rather exponentially,” said Kurtzer. “What you think is a settlement slowdown, because you are only allowed to build within the construction line, would, under an expanded definition of that term, actually allow for a settlement boom.”
“It is this argument over lines – with settlers looking to exploit any loophole they can find in order to permit more expansion of settlements – that has led past US administrations into the trap of seemingly endless and irresolvable negotiations over how to decide what it means to build ‘inside’ settlements,” according to a statement posted to Peace Now’s website.
“This is not a debate over semantics. Many settlements have far-flung ‘neighborhoods’ that, if used as the basis for the ‘construction line,’ would permit massive expansion that would allow settlements to grow many times over.
Back in 2004, no agreement was reached and the US eventually requested Israel cease building anywhere outside the blocs.
The self-imposed “curb” announced last week, whether or not it was coordinated with Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, not only fails to define terms such as “footprint” and “construction line,” but it also allows Israel to make exceptions in cases where building within these vague parameters is not possible.
That would appear to give Israel considerable leeway in determining where to build, said Kurtzer, who today teaches Middle East policy studies at Princeton University.
“The bottom line here is that the issues are so technical that everyone could get away with public statements that sound positive when in fact they’re not,” said Kurtzer.
Since Israel may not build in West Bank Area A (the major cities under Palestinian control) and Area B (under Palestinian civilian control and Israeli security authority), and not establish new settlements or outposts, it is inaccurate to say the current understanding gives Israel the self-declared right to “unlimited” settlement construction, Kurtzer added. “But it would allow for enormous settlement growth.”
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