Obama’s settlement construction lie

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly pushed back against President Obama’s Middle East narrative during the meeting of the two yesterday. According to this account, Netanyahu offered Obama a “history lesson” covering the last 20 years of conflict with the Palestinians.

If so, the lesson was much needed. Perhaps it will spark a more general interest by Obama in the subject of history.

It’s difficult to say which is more distressing, Obama’s ignorance about history or his willingness to distort it. Both tendencies were evident, but the latter prevailed, in his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg about the Middle East.

Consider Obama’s claim that “we have seen more aggressive [Israeli] settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” Evelyn Gordon shows that this statement has no basis in fact:

[A]s 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 [citations omitted]. 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 is true, as Gordon acknowledges, that settlement construction more than doubled last year. But it doubled from such a low base that it still fell far short of Barak’s high-water mark; indeed construction was roughly at the same level as during the presidency of Yitzhak Rabin, signatory of the Oslo Accords and patron saint of the peace process.

In any event, Obama’s claim wasn’t limited to last year. He claimed that settlement construction has been unusually aggressive “over the last couple of years.” That isn’t true.

Obama’s lie is in service of a deeper falsehood — the notion that settlement construction is the obstacle to peace. As Gordon explains:

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.

Presumably, Netanyahu explained some of this to Obama during his “history lesson.” Presumably, Netanyahu wasted his breath.

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