House Hunting in the West Bank

It's Benjamin Netanyahu's fault. Because of his insistence on allowing for "natural growth" of West Bank settlements, I decided to go real-estate shopping. I called Amana, the settlement-building organization, and said I was interested in homes in Binyamin, the name used by settlers and Israeli officialdom for the piece of the West Bank directly north of Jerusalem.

The sales rep was so helpful I could hear her smile. At Shilo, a 30-year-old settlement north of Ramallah, construction has recently begun on a new development. For about $160,000, she said, I could get a 1,200-square-foot house. To American ears, that sounds small, but for a Jerusalem apartment-dweller, it would be a step up. Besides, that's a starter home; I could add a second floor now or later, she said.

At Eli, just up the road from Shilo, she offered homes in the center of the settlement and in outlying "neighborhoods." In Hayovel, for instance, she had a house for $115,000, with a completed first floor and the outer shell for the second floor. She didn't mention that the "neighborhood" of Hayovel is an illegal outpost, built partly on private Palestinian land. She offered me a similar house at a settlement called Ma'aleh Mikhmash. I thanked her and said I'd talk to my wife.

Ma'aleh Mikhmash happens to be where Knesset Member Otniel Schneller lives. Schneller, a former settlement leader, braved the criticism of the right to join the centrist Kadima Party. But at a recent meeting of Kadima's Knesset delegation, he reportedly attacked President Barack Obama's insistence on a full freeze on settlement building with no exceptions for "natural growth."

The U.S. demand was "immoral," Schneller said. He refused to agree to what he termed "an edict forbidding my daughters to give birth to my grandchildren." And Schneller belongs to a party that refused to join Netanyahu's coalition. Members of Netanyahu's Cabinet have been more caustic. Science Minister Daniel Hershkowitz said that Obama's demand was akin to "Pharaoh's demand that all firstborn sons be thrown into the Nile River."

To call this nonsense would be too forgiving. It is one part of the multilayered lie about "natural growth" of settlements.

Barack Obama has not demanded that women in settlements stop having babies. Rather, he has insisted that Israel stop construction in settlements, in line with its commitments under the 2003 road map for peace -- in line, in fact, with American opposition to settlement building since 1967. Consistent with the road map, and with the 2001 report written by George Mitchell, now Obama's Middle East envoy, the president has rejected Israeli insistence that construction continue to allow for "natural growth" of the settler population.

The deliberate twisting of Obama's stance is aimed at both a domestic and American audience. And it has confused some otherwise astute observers. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York and chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, said in press statement on Tuesday that he supported a settlement freeze but not one that "calls on Israeli families not to grow [or] get married. Telling people not to have children is unthinkable and inhumane."

Don't worry, Mr. Ackerman: The president is not talking about universal contraception for Israeli settlers. If there's any logic behind the rhetoric of Schneller, Hershkowitz, et al., it's a claim that people have the natural right to have a larger home in the same community if they expand their families, and to have their grown children live down the street. Why should that be true? West Bank settlements aren't ancient communities in isolated valleys hundreds of miles from the nearest town. They are recently established bedroom communities, within commuting distance of Israeli cities -- where many settlers in fact work.

Inside Israel, as in other developed countries, it's perfectly normal for people to change neighborhoods as their families grow. Grown children can't necessarily find or afford homes next door to their parents.

If settlers avoid self-deception, they have less reason to assume that their children will be able to buy homes down the block from them. Settlements were established as part of a deliberate and controversial gambit, an attempt to lock Israel into keeping the occupied territories. A settlement freeze or evacuation has always been a possibility. "What will we say to a family living with one child, which now has four or five children? That the children will move to Petah Tikva?" asked Hershkovitz, referring to one of Tel Aviv's large satellite cities. Well, yes. The whole family, or any grown children, could move inside Israel.

But focusing the argument for settlements around expanding families is itself a very deliberate distraction. Construction in settlements is not aimed only at accommodating children of settlers. It's aimed at drawing more Israelis across the Green Line boundary between Israel and the West Bank. When I spoke to the Amana office, the sales rep didn't ask me whether I'd grown up in a settlement or where I currently live. She offered me real-estate deals. Were I a right-winger, were I someone who preferred not to think about the disastrous implications of permanent Israeli rule of the West Bank, were I not me, her offers would have been very tempting. Instead of the apartment in which I've raised three kids in Jerusalem, I could get a house, a yard, and considerable change.

Settlement homes aren't quite the giveaways they were a few years ago. But they are still cheap, subsidized housing that continues to draw Israelis to move to the West Bank. In 2007, the last year for which there are official figures, the settlement population (not including annexed East Jerusalem) grew by 14,500 people. Of that growth, 37 percent was due to veteran Israelis or new immigrants moving to occupied territory. The "natural growth" argument is intended to cover up the continued, state-backed effort to encourage this migration.

The same official figures show over twice the rate of natural increase in the settlements than in Israel as a whole. Yes, the settler population is younger, meaning more women of childbearing age, and yes, much of it is Orthodox and puts a high value on large families. But people express their values more when the material conditions allow them to. Inexpensive housing makes it easier for younger couples to start having children and for families to be larger. That's especially true of the kind of housing available in many settlements: small, inexpensive homes that couples can buy when they don't have a lot of money, expecting to expand them later. The construction style is meant to "entice" people to come to settlements, as a realtor told me. Inside Israel such homes aren't available, she said. Put differently, even natural growth is unnaturally high in settlements. A construction freeze threatens that pattern.

Netanyahu and his partners don't want any of this to stop. They want settlements to keep growing, in order to block an Israeli withdrawal and a two-state solution. Obama wants a freeze as the first step toward a solution. The natural-growth argument is worse than a distraction; it's a scam. Let the buyer beware.

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