By Evelyn Gordon
Since John Podhoretz, Elliott Abramsand Jonathan Tobin have all written excellent takedowns of the fallacies, outright lies and destructive consequences of President Barack Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on Sunday, you might think there’s nothing left to say. But there are some additional points that merit consideration, and I’d like to focus on one: settlement construction. Because on this issue, Obama’s “facts” are flat-out wrong – and this particular untruth have some very important implications.
According to Obama, “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” But in reality, as a simple glance at the annual data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals, there has been less settlement construction during Benjamin Netanyahu’s five years as Israeli premier (2009-13) than under any of his recent predecessors.
During those five years, housing starts in the settlements averaged 1,443 a year (all data is from the charts here, here and here plus this news report). That’s less than the 1,702 a year they averaged under Ehud Olmert in 2006-08, who is nevertheless internationally acclaimed as a peacemaker (having made the Palestinians an offer so generous that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn’t believe she was hearing it). It’s also less than the 1,652 per year they averaged under Ariel Sharon in 2001-05, who is similarly lauded internationally as a peacemaker (for having left Gaza); the fact that even Sharon out-built Netanyahu is particularly remarkable, because his term coincided with the second intifada, when demand for housing in the settlements plummeted. And it’s far less than under Ehud Barak, who is also internationally acclaimed as a peacemaker (for his generous offer at Camp David in 2000): One single year under Barak, 2000, produced more housing starts in the settlements (4,683) than the entire first four years of Netanyahu’s term (4,679).
It’s true that settlement construction more than doubled last year; otherwise, Netanyahu’s average would have been even lower. But it doubled from such a low base that the absolute number of housing starts, 2,534, is not only far less than Barak’s record one-year high; it’s only slightly larger than the 1995 total of 2,430 – when the prime minister was Yitzhak Rabin, signatory of the Oslo Accords and patron saint of the peace process. In previous years, housing starts under Netanyahu were only a third to a half of those in 1995.
In short, if settlement construction were really the death blow to the peace process that Obama and his European counterparts like to claim, Netanyahu ought to be their favorite Israeli prime minister ever instead of the most hated, because never has settlement construction been as low as it has under him. The obvious conclusion is that all the talk about settlement construction is just a smokescreen, and what really makes Western leaders loathe Netanyahu is something else entirely: the fact that unlike Rabin, Barak, Sharon and Olmert, he has so far refused to offer the kind of sweeping territorial concessions that, every time they were tried, have resulted in massive waves of anti-Israel terror.
But it doesn’t sound good to say they hate Netanyahu because of his reluctance to endanger the country he was elected to serve. So instead, Western leaders prefer to harp on settlement construction, secure in the knowledge that no journalist will ever bother to check their “facts.”