Analysis from Israel

Regardless of the subject, some people would always rather divert the conversation to Israel’s “relentless and deliberate program of settlement expansion,” as J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami did in response to Michael Oren’s revelations about the Obama Administration’s conduct toward Israel. So let’s honor their wishes and talk about the settlements – specifically, about how much Israel’s government spends on this “relentless program of expansion.” Because according to new data released by none other than the leader of the opposition, government spending on West Bank settlements and their residents is actually about 40 percent less per capita than Israel spends on all its other citizens.

In an interview with Haaretz published last Friday, Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog – who opposes the settlements – was asked what “the annual cost of the occupation” is. His response:From 2009 to 2014, Israel invested 10 billion shekels [$2.5 billion] in Judea and Samaria. That’s a huge amount of the state budget.”

But math clearly isn’t Herzog’s strong point, because 10 billion shekels is actually a trivial amount of the state budget, which totaled 408 billion shekels in 2014. So even assuming (which I do) that he meant 10 billion a year, not 10 billion over the course of five years, that still amounts to only 2.5 percent of the state budget.

According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, however, there were 341,800 Jewish settlers in 2013 (the last year for which data is available), out of a total Israeli population of 8.1345 million. In other words, settlers account for 4.2 percent of the population.

Thus if the government is spending 10 billion shekels a year on the settlers, then their proportional share of the state budget is 40 percent less than their share in the population. And most of that money would be spent regardless of where they lived, since all Israelis are entitled to healthcare, education, defense and various other government-funded services.

Of course, one could claim that Herzog’s figure is simply unreliable. But his predecessor as Labor Party chairman, who also opposes the settlements, similarly concluded that the government actually spends very little on them.

In a 2011 interview with Haaretz, Shelly Yacimovich was asked whether “the billions … invested in the settlements” weren’t coming at the expense of her dream of a welfare state within the Green Line. She flatly denied it:

I am familiar with that well-known equation: that if there were no settlements there would be a welfare state within Israel’s borders. I am familiar with the worldview that maintains that if we cut the defense budget in half there will be money for education. It’s a worldview with no connection to reality. I reject it; it is simply not factually correct, even though it is now perceived as axiomatic. A school that is located in a settlement and has X number of students would be located inside the Green Line and have the same number of children at the same cost.

Two weeks later, she wrote a follow-up for Haaretz in which she doubled down on her “rejection of the mathematics of ‘if there will be no settlements, there will be money for a welfare state.’ I plead guilty: I too thought this, six years ago.” But after “six intensive years as a member of the [Knesset] Finance Committee,” she became convinced that this assumption is simply false.

For diehard anti-Israel types, the facts are never relevant. But for the rest of the world, maybe it’s time to finally admit what two successive leaders of the opposition now have: Far from Israel engaging in “relentless settlement expansion,” state spending on the settlements is actually minuscule.

Originally published in Commentary on June 18, 2015

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Peace: The Missing Israeli Election Issue

Israel’s election campaign has only just begun, but one key issue is already notable by its absence: peace with the Palestinians. To many Americans—especially American Jews, who overwhelmingly consider this the most important issue facing Israel—the fact that almost none of the candidates are talking about the peace process may seem surprising. But several recent incidents help explain why it’s a very low priority for most Israeli voters.

Not so long ago, of course, the peace process was Israel’s top voting issue, almost its only one. But in a poll published last month, self-identified centrists and rightists both ranked the peace process dead last among six suggested issues of concern. Even self-identified leftists ranked it only third, below corruption and closing socioeconomic gaps.

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