The most significant development during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to Israel and the West Bank had nothing to do with his visit. Blinken’s low-key suggestions for diffusing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians signify the rapidly shrinking U.S. diplomatic footprint on what was for many years a key component of U.S. policy in the region.
Far more newsworthy and historically significant was the publication by an obscure Israeli ministry of the annual population increase of the settler population in the more than 200 settlements in the West Bank.
The report by the Ministry of the Interior’s Population Registry notes that Israel’s settler population has grown to more than 500,000 in the West Bank proper and more than 200,000 in the settlements of annexed East Jerusalem.
Quantifying the continued, inexorable increase in Israel's settlement population continues a trend as old as the occupation itself. For more than half a century, no matter which Israeli government—left, right, or center—has wielded power, Israel’s settlement population and the number of Israeli settlements have increased. In the ongoing contest between the Israelis and Palestinians over control and sovereignty, there is no better barometer of Israel's success and the concurrent dangers not only to the prospect of Palestinian sovereignty, once considered the key to regional stability, but also to the health of Israel’s own democracy.
The ministry document portrays a settlement enterprise that is growing consistently throughout the West Bank. This includes those settlements in areas of East Jerusalem, formally annexed by Israel, with a population of more than 200,000, and the ring of large settlement areas around Jerusalem comprising so-called “Greater Jerusalem.” The population increase includes settlements in the sparsely populated Jordan Valley as well as those in the highlands of Judea and Samaria, home to the current finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich. Smotrich was born in a Golan Heights settlement and still resides in the heartland of the Block of the Faithful settlement movement, which has been at the vanguard of attempts to “grab and settle” throughout the West Bank for the last half-century.
In addition to the growth of these formal, authorized settlements, so-called illegal settlements and outposts initially established without formal government approval over the last twenty-five years continue to increase in number and population. It should be no small matter that successive Israeli governments have committed to dismantling these outposts without practical effect. Indeed, U.S. administrations have long ceased to even ask, let alone demand, that Israel keep such commitments made to Washington.
Over the last fifty years, there has been only one meaningful (if fleeting) obstacle to the increase in Israel’s settlement population: the violence that accompanied the second intifada between 2000 and 2005.
The insecurity produced by the Palestinian uprising, however, merely reduced the annual increase in the settlement population. In contrast, diplomacy sponsored by the United States—beginning with the 1977 “autonomy talks” and continuing throughout the long moribund Oslo process that commenced in 1992—failed to constrain, and arguably facilitated, the increase. Indeed, an objective assessment of this era can only conclude that one of the key objectives of the diplomatic processes of the last generation was the extraordinary increase in settlements and settlers.
The Biden administration’s current engagement in Palestine continues to be based on the assumption the Palestinian security services must deliver the goods to Israel, and protect its settlers and soldiers, without any prospect of the basic payoff long awaited by the Palestinians: independence, sovereignty, and the retreat of the Israel Defense Forces and settlers to a recognized border. If the Oslo Accords at their very best hinted at such an outcome, it has been clear since Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002 that there is no real prospect of any significant Israeli security or settlement retreat in the West Bank, and that diplomatic efforts led by the United States to confront this reality and transform occupation into independence and sovereignty have failed.
The United States, including the current administration, long ago surrendered to the inexorable increase in Israeli settlements. No serious diplomacy between the parties has been conducted since the George W. Bush administration, and it has been more than a decade since the Americans even considered a diplomatic effort to freeze, let alone reverse, the growth of settlements.
In the absence of such a “diplomatic horizon” based on the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, inventive diplomats have come up with a series of quick fixes in an effort to maintain the fiction of diplomatic progress and U.S. engagement. At best, these efforts treat the less desirable symptoms of continuing occupation—notably Palestinian opposition to Israel’s territorial fait accompli—rather than confronting the cause, at the heart of which is Israel’s long-practiced effort to create “facts on the ground.” So, for example, U.S. engagement is now focused on yet another West Bank security plan, which, yet again, aims to square the circle of mobilizing popular Palestinian support for institutions—security and otherwise—that have woefully failed to protect Palestinians, and their political patrimony, from what they see as a major political, economic, and oftentimes personal threat: settlers and settlements.
Geoffrey Aronson is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former advisor to the EU and others on regional political and security issues.