President Barack Obama has put Israel and its wholly-owned subsidiaries in the American press in uproar by demanding that Israel halt its policy of settlement growth in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the now infamous “natural growth.” He has posited this as a condition for a peace process that results in what is called the two-state solution. Obama says Israel agreed to this in 2003, when Israel signed onto Mad King George’s so-called Roadmap To Peace. Readers might recall that the Roadmap was supposed to produce a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by 2005. Israel, to be sure, signed it with “reservations,” but her leaders have now countered Obama’s gambit by saying that it had an unwritten verbal agreement with the Bush Administration that allowed Israel to proceed with a partial form of “natural growth” in the existing settlements. Presumably this partial natural growth is driven by demographic facts shaping the settler population. This is a curious argument, but it does show how vapid the Middle East debate has become.
To illustrate the depths of the mindlessness now shaping debate, let us set aside the obvious: “Natural growth” is a red herring because (1) all settlements are illegal under international law and (2) a two-state solution can not possibly succeed unless the Palestinian state on the West Bank is a coherent geographical entity, with at least one border open to a country other than Israel. Both of these conditions imply Israel must tear down its illegal separation wall, close down the hundreds of illegal checkpoints that strangle free movement of Palestinians in the West Bank, shut down all the illegal Israeli-only access roads that carve the West Bank into isolated Bantustans, and roll back its existing settlements to a point where Palestinian territory in the West Bank approximates that of the status quo ante on June 4, 1967. Yet now the debate has been joined over the question of natural growth?
Just what is natural growth?
Last March 10, I wrote an essay in Counterpunch entitled “The Settler Question: What Arab-Israeli Peace Process?” It included a graphic that showed how the rate of build-up of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem was completely unaffected by the Oslo, Camp David, and Roadmap peace processes. Since the Israelis now claim they had a secret unwritten agreement with Bush II to proceed with some aspects of “natural growth” during the Roadmap period (2003-2008), by their own words, it seems fair to say that the build up shown in this figure portrays the Israeli conception of those partial aspects of “natural growth.”
The data was assembled by the Israeli human rights organization B’TSelem. It shows that Israel’s conception of natural growth resulted in a settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that grew from 397,988 settlers in 2003 to 479,523 in 2008. This represents a compound annual population growth of 3.85 per cent per year. According to data compiled in the CIA World Factbook, the most recent estimate (2007) for the population growth rate of Israel (which includes the settlers) was 1.15 per cent. So Israel’s leaders believe natural growth in the Occupied Territories must be at least 3.34 times faster than that for the entire population of Israel.
But there is more. Most Israelis believe that they are facing a demographic time bomb where the faster Arab population growth in the Occupied Territories will soon result in Israelis being outnumbered by Arabs in all the lands controlled by Israel. This view is correct, because the population growth of the West Bank Palestinians was 2.98 per cent, or about 2.6 times faster than the growth rate for the population of Israel, but it is still smaller than what Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Co. say is natural for illegal West Bank settlers.
I searched the database in the CIA World Factbook (data for 2007) and could find only one country that had a higher population growth rate than the partial natural growth rate exhibited by the Israeli settlers since 2003: Liberia in Africa, whose population grew by 4.836 per cent in 2007. The next highest rate of growth was Burundi, also in Africa, with 3.593%, which readers will note is less than than the natural growth of Israel’s settler population. By the way, the natural growth rate for the world in 2007 was only 1.167 per cent. In other words, what Israel says is “natural” for Israeli settlers ain’t natural elsewhere … except perhaps in Liberia.
So … if the Israeli settlers were an independent country, and we bought into Israel’s definition of natural growth, their demographics would give their country the second fastest growing population in the world. To be sure, a couple of hundred thousand settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are a far cry demographically from three million Liberians or eight million Barundians, but the bottom line is clear: partial natural growth as defined by Israelis is demographic hogwash.
And something else is also clear: Any peace negotiator who thinks that getting Israelis to cease natural growth (instead of reversing the larger land grab) is a reasonable quid pro quo for Israel’s acquiescence to a peace process is hoisting himself on his own petard.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org