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Unnatural Growth

The settlement of Beit El is nestled in the center of the West Bank, near enough to Jerusalem for a tolerable commute — an hour by bus — yet in a world of its own. It is beyond the “Green Line” marking the 1967 border, beyond the security barrier and so close to Ramallah that it surely would be part of an independent Palestinian state, if one were ever created.

It is not a major population center like Ma’ale Adumim, which has essentially become a suburb of Jerusalem and, many expect, would be on the Israeli side of the border in any final peace agreement. But Beit El is growing just the same. Data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics put the population in 2003 at 4,627; by 2007, it grew to 5,288, and the trend continues. In the Binyamin region where Beit El sits, the population grew 6.3% in 2007 and another 4.8% in 2008.

This is what “natural growth” looks like: Trailers designated for newly married residents pushing at the seams of an existing settlement. A steady stream of government permits to build more buildings. A steady stream of people moving to make their homes on disputed land, with the government’s explicit blessing. The statistics bureau estimates that one-third of the annual growth in settlements is due to migration.

Israel pledged to freeze settlement growth in the 2003 “road map,” and again at the Annapolis summit 18 months ago. But the settlements continue to grow, and successive governments across the political spectrum enable the expansion, sometimes with the bureaucratic version of a wink and a nod, other times with full-throated defiance. The Netanyahu government is striking the defiant pose these days, belittling the very notion that continued settlement growth is somehow an obstacle to negotiations and describing President Obama’s call for a settlement freeze as “unreasonable.”

Obama isn’t being unreasonable. Netanyahu is. The Israeli government’s defense of “natural growth” masks its true intent. Ministers say that families deserve the right to stay in their communities as their broods increase, and that is why settlements should be allowed to add homes, schools and synagogues. That’s a “right” enjoyed by no one else in Israel, or the United States, for that matter.

But governments do have a right — indeed, an obligation — to plan growth in their communities, to zone for appropriate use, to respect the boundaries of adjacent neighborhoods. Most of us cannot build on our property without the requisite permits and permissions, never mind suddenly decide to annex the backyard next door to accommodate a larger household.

“If there is a family that expands from one child to four or five, what should we tell them — to ship the children off to Petah Tikva?” asked Daniel Herschkowitz, Israel’s minister of science and technology. Actually, it’s not the government’s role to tell any family where to live, or how many children to bring into this world, or to grant special dispensation to the religious Zionists in Beit El while secular Jews in Petah Tikva struggle to find enough living space.

Netanyahu is obviously trying to buy time, to keep together his fragile, fractious, right-wing ruling coalition, and to wait as the Jewish footprint in the occupied territories continues to expand. He’s not the only one engaged in a cynical waiting game. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also waiting — for Israel to be pressed for concessions by the Americans and, maybe, for the Netanyahu government to collapse. He, too, must be held accountable for the promises made by his government to improve security, weed out corruption, clamp down on the hate taught in schools and universities, and give his people a decent alternative to the dangerous Hamas.

True, Netanyahu cannot be expected to act in a vacuum. But neither can he endlessly use the other side’s recalcitrance as an excuse not to keep his country’s word. As our Nathan Jeffay reports this week, the Israeli public is becoming less supportive of the settlers and more convinced that the growth of outlying settlements is a detriment to national security. So are many American Jewish lawmakers and communal leaders. They are saying what the current Israeli leadership needs to hear: There’s nothing natural, or acceptable, about “natural growth.”


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