Settler leader: Population growth is end of 2-state solution

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

JERUSALEM — The number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank has soared by nearly one-quarter over the past five years to over 420,000 people, a prominent settler leader said Sunday, presenting new population figures that he said put to rest the internationally backed idea of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yaakov Katz issued his report as the Israeli government is locked in negotiations with the Trump administration over understandings that are expected to include some curbs on settlement construction.

“We are talking about a situation that is unchangeable,” he said Sunday. “It’s very important to know the numbers, and the numbers are growing.”

According to Katz, the settler population hit 420,899 on Jan. 1, up 3.6 percent from 406,332 people a year earlier and a 23-percent increase from 342,414 at the beginning of 2012.

Katz said the numbers were based on data from the Interior Ministry that have not yet been made public. The ministry, which oversees the country’s population registry, had no comment. But Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog group, said the numbers appeared reasonable.

The figures are being published on a new website sponsored by Bet El Institutions, a settler organization that counts members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle among its supporters.

Katz’s figures did not include settlement construction in east Jerusalem, where more than 200,000 Israelis now live. Altogether, he said the population growth — which is nearly double the 2-percent nationwide rate of annual population growth — means the settlements are “irreversible,” he said.

“Whatever Angela Merkel or Trump or anybody else is thinking about, it belongs to the past, not to the future,” he said.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future independent state.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leading to the takeover of the territory by the Islamic militant group Hamas two years later. Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade over Gaza since then. Israel says the policy is needed to prevent Hamas from building up its arsenal of weapons. Critics condemn it as collective punishment.

For the past two decades, the international community has overwhelmingly backed the idea of a two-state solution as the best way of reaching peace in the region and rejected Israeli settlements as obstacles to peace.

Without an independent Palestinian state, the thinking goes, Israel will remain in control over millions of Palestinians who do not have equal rights, forcing it to choose between its Jewish and democratic character.

Just weeks before Trump took office, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution declaring settlements illegal.

Ahmad Majdalani, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Palestinian independence is the only way to peace and remains a possibility, despite settler efforts to derail it.

“The two-state solution was possible yesterday and today and at any time. The two-state solution is not the problem,” he said. “Settlements are.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is dominated by pro-settler hard-liners who oppose Palestinian statehood on either security or religious grounds.

After years of clashes with President Barack Obama, Israeli hardliners have welcomed the election of Trump, who they perceive as being far more sympathetic to their cause.

Trump’s platform made no mention of a Palestinian state. And during the campaign, he vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a stance welcomed by Israel and opposed by the Palestinians, and signaled that he would be more tolerant of settlement construction.

But since taking office, he appears to have backpedaled. He seems to be in no rush to move the embassy, and during a White House meeting with Netanyahu last month, he urged restraint on Israeli settlement construction. He also has left the door open to a two-state solution.

A Trump envoy, Jason Greenblatt, visited the region earlier this month for introductory talks with Israelis and Palestinians. He has been working with the Israelis on a series of understandings that would limit at least some settlement construction in hopes of restarting peace talks.

Speaking to his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said there was still no agreement. “I will not go into details,” he said. “Our talks with the White House are continuing. I hope they will conclude quickly.”

Katz, widely known by his nickname “Ketzeleh,” is one of the founders and most prominent figures in the West Bank settler movement. He is a former member of parliament and led a hard-line nationalist party.

Bet El is a religious settlement north of Jerusalem. Katz’s organization sponsors a well-known Jewish seminary and “Arutz Sheva,” a pro-settler news agency.

Official U.S. records show that its donors have included the family foundation of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and confidant; David Friedman, his new ambassador to Israel; and Trump himself.

Friedman, a former fund-raiser for the Bet El Institutions, was narrowly confirmed last week as ambassador after a tough battle that included fierce opposition from dovish Jewish American groups.

Katz expressed faith that Trump would remain supportive and described the new ambassador as a “great American patriot.”

“The American people will be very proud of him,” he said.

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