Do numbers lie? Making sense of Israel’s latest batch of settlement approvals

After years of downplaying housing numbers, Netanyahu now forced to inflate them in order to appease his right-wing base

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A view of construction in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on January 26, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
A view of construction in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on January 26, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Israel advanced plans for thousands of West Bank settlement homes this week, but nobody seems to be on the same page regarding exactly how many units were green-lighted.

When the Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction published its agenda for meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan slammed what he viewed as an “insufficient” number of building permits scheduled to be approved.

“We need to tell the truth. The emperor has no clothes,” he said, characterizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as dishonest for his “public pledges of 3,600 housing units which only amounted to 700 units that would receive final approval for building.”

But the Prime Minister’s Office shot back at Dagan and other settler leaders, insisting that the number of homes set to be advanced through various stages was actually 3,736 units, with over 1,000 of them receiving final approval.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) with Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan at an event commemorating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank, August 28, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“Whoever claims that this is not a significant improvement is misleading the public. Whoever thinks that political considerations do not need to be taken into account is mistaken. There is no one who works more for settlements, with determination and wisdom, than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” said an official in his office last week.

To account for the different figures, one must factor in the political calculus at play, in addition to the simple arithmetic needed to count the number of homes approved.

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Above is a map of settlements where building plans were advanced this week.

Bibi the acrobat

Looking to appease his settler base, Netanyahu jumped through quite a few hoops to overstate the number of settlement homes being authorized. For plans that were mere additions to already existing projects, the Prime Minister’s Office counted both the new and existing homes in its final tally of 3,736.

In the settlement of Kfar Etzion, for example, 38 units were green-lighted to be added on to a project of 120 houses that had already received final approval in 1993, but the Prime Minister’s Office still counted that as an authorization of 158 units, rather than just 38.

In Elkana, where residents received final building approval to expand a nursing home from 50 rooms to 250 rooms, many analysts chose to count the expansion as one unit, given that these were not new homes intended for the settlement. However the PMO tallied the project as consisting of 250 units — including the existing rooms — in its calculations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Yesha Council leaders at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The discrepancy between the figures wielded by Netanyahu and those of the settler leaders regarding settlement homes that gained final approval can also be explained in the prime minister’s presentation of a plan for 459 units in Ma’ale Adumim.

While the plan gained what is referred to as “validation,” — typically the final approval required before construction can begin — the settlement city’s size requires it to go through an additional “marketing” stage in which homes are marketed by the Housing Ministry to private contractors, who are then responsible for carrying out the construction.

Only 13 of the roughly 130 settlements in the West Bank are large enough to require this extra bureaucratic step. Another is Beit El, which received approval for “marketing,” thus allowing the Housing Ministry to publish a tender for 296 units on Tuesday.

But the largest contribution to the disparity between Netanyahu’s 3,736 units and the settlers’ figure of roughly 2,000 was the prime minister’s decision to count those plans that leaped a small technical hurdle known as “deposit publication.”

Settler leaders and members of bereaved families hold a press conference outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem on October 18, 2017. (Credit: Miri Tzachi)

After a project is advanced through the deposit stage of planning, there is a roughly two-month period during which the public can lodge objections to the approval. These are typically submitted by anti-settlement watchdogs such as Peace Now or private Palestinian landowners, though usually with little success.

But before the objection can be filed, an ad in a newspaper must be published announcing the newly “deposited” plan. This stage does not require the approval of the High Planning Subcommittee and the projects that are published do not even appear in agendas for the Defense Ministry body, which is why it is difficult to know how many were advanced.

Nonetheless, the PMO included the roughly 700 units that were “published for deposit” in its final tally. These were numbers that even the left-wing Peace Now settlement watchdog did not include in its ultimate total of units approved this week.

The same pattern was evident in the PMO official’s calculation of “12,000 settlement homes that were advanced through various planning stages in 2017.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) next to Ma’ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel during a meeting of the Likud party in the West Bank town, October 3, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

To reach this figure, the PMO added the same plan to the tally each time it was advanced through a new stage. Telling settlers during a June meeting that he had advanced over 2,600 homes that month, Netanyahu included in that count the same Ma’ale Adumim project of 459 units that was again used to reach the 3,736 figure touted last week.

With the Obama administration’s more confrontational settlement policy slowly becoming a remnant of the past, Netanyahu is finding himself forced to inflate building numbers after eight years of downplaying them.

But settler leaders don’t seem to be fooled by the tactic.

“We are tired of thanking (this government) for every bone that it throws at us… The prime minister is missing a historic opportunity that won’t likely recur. There is currently a US president who, even if he does not agree (with settlement building), will not condemn it to the extent that was done during the Obama era,” Dagan said last week.

Still serving the settlers

Not included in the statements criticizing Netanyahu, however, were the gains for the West Bank settlers, specifically those evacuated by the government from illegal outposts, and the spread of the housing units beyond the so-called blocs.

A quarter of the houses that gained final approval belong to projects for evacuees of the illegally built outposts of Ulpana (in Beit El), Migron, and Amona, which were demolished —  in June 2012, September 2012 and February 2017 respectively — after the High Court of Justice ruled they had been built on private Palestinian land. Also among the plans advanced were 30 units for the evacuees of the Netiv Ha’avot outpost which is slated to be razed in March 2018 for the same reason.

Netiv Ha’avot residents protest the High Court decision to demolish 17 structures of their outpost, demonstrating outside the Knesset on July 17, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Peace Now highlighted those four plans in a Wednesday statement lambasting Netanyahu over the approvals. “The government of Israel is sending settlers a clear message: you can build illegally and steal private Palestinian lands and we will take care of providing adequate compensation. Netanyahu has decided to only serve the settlers, and to hell with the rule of law, the future of Israel and the chance for peace,” it said.

In addition to authorizing homes for Israelis that had previously built on private Palestinian land, Netanyahu’s government also granted building permits for 31 housing units for the Jewish settlement in Hebron —  marking the first time construction has been approved in the flashpoint West Bank city in 15 years.

During a meeting with settler leaders last month, the prime minister boasted of having successfully convinced the Trump administration to drop its distinction between settlement blocs and so-called isolated settlements.

Although they did not openly acknowledge it, settlers were likely reminded of that point after the High Planning Subcommittee dedicated over half of its approvals this week to settlement homes located far beyond the large built-up areas along the pre-1967 Green Line.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center right, visits the construction site of the new Amichai settlement in the West Bank on October 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We’ve gone from settlers saying ‘at least he’s building in the blocs’ to ‘of course he’s building in the blocs,'” Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran summarized.

The Times of Israel calculated the number of housing units advanced to have been 2,646 with 1,323 gaining final approval.

Although Netanyahu’s insistence that 3,736 units were advanced this week may have been a stretch, the precedent he is setting in the West Bank in the distribution of the permits and compensation for razed outposts should be cause enough for settlers to smile, at the very least.

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