Last night Martin Indyk, now the chief assistant to Secretary of State Kerry in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, spoke at length to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. One account of his speech appears here at the Times of Israel's web site.
In the speech Indyk cast blame on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, for the breakdown of the talks. There are a couple of things to say about his remarks, beginning with his failure to cast any blame on the third side of the triangle: the United States, or more precisely Kerry and Indyk himself. Blaming his boss, and his boss's boss, President Obama, was more than could legitimately have been expected from Indyk, but a wee bit of introspection was not. Historians will not have to be consulted decades from now to analyze the manifold errors in Obama administration handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because the errors have been obvious from day one. Or day two, to be more accurate, when the president selected former senator George Mitchell as his special envoy.
It was down hill from there, as Mitchell began by insisting on a 100 percent Israeli construction freeze in the major blocks and Jerusalem as a prerequisite for negotiations. This was a condition on which Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas had never insisted. The result was four years, Mr. Obama's entire first term, without any negotiations.
That story is worth noting because Indyk has continued the obsession over settlements—and the supply of misinformation about them. He spoke last night of "rampant" settlement expansion. In his "background" interview with the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea last week, he spoke of "large scale land confiscation" for settlement expansion. Here he is following the president, who recently spoke of "aggressive construction."
Last night Indyk said this, according to the transcripts I have seen:
Just during the past nine months of negotiations, tenders for building 4,800 units were announced and planning was advanced for another 8,000 units. It’s true that most of the tendered units are slated to be built in areas that even Palestinian maps in the past have indicated would be part of Israel. Yet the planning units were largely outside that area in the West Bank. And from the Palestinian experience, there is no distinction between planning and building. Indeed, according to the Israeli Bureau of Census and Statistics, from 2012 to 2013 construction starts in West Bank settlements more than doubled.
These numbers are meaningless and misleading. There is no "rampant" expansion or "large scale land confiscation" for settlements. First, there is certainly a difference between what is announced and what is built. Under the Israeli system, all construction in the West Bank requires several levels of approval, and not every project that gets initial approval gets built. Second, every level of approval is announced triumphantly by the settlement movement, so one reads press stories of approvals for the same project over and over as months pass. This makes it seems as if there are constant approvals, when in fact there are constant repetitions. Indyk surely knows this.
Third, the numbers are simply wrong. Uri Sadot and I wrote about this in the Washington Post, after a careful look at the statistics. Here is part of what we said:
Israel built 2,534 housing units last year in the West Bank. Of these, about a quarter (694) were in two major blocs near Jerusalem, Giv’at Ze’ev and Betar Illit, and 537 were in two other major blocs, Modiin Illit and Ma’ale Adumim, also near Jerusalem. These four, which will remain part of Israel, account for half of last year’s construction....only 908 units were built last year in Israeli townships of 10,000 residents or fewer. And most of those units were built in settlement towns that are part of the major blocs. Units built in areas that would become part of Palestine number in the hundreds — and likely in the low hundreds. Given that about 90,000 Israelis live in the West Bank outside the blocs, that is approximately the rate of natural growth.