In his meeting with Vice President Joe Biden last week, Israeli President Shimon Peres is reported to have said that "ending natural growth in settlements was a non-starter" and, in his own words, that "Israel cannot instruct settlers in existing settlements not to have children or get married."
If it sounds like a gag, it's real. "Natural growth" was officially made an issue in the "Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," promulgated by the U.S. State Department in 2003 under the auspices of the Quartet (consisting of the U.S., the EU, the UN, and Russia). That document, as part of the Palestinian and Israeli sides' responsibilities under Phase I of the roadmap, states that "GOI [Government of Israel] freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)."
Just a year ago, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and three other ministers from the Quartet expressed "deep concern at continuing settlement activity and called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth." Peres -- who, it should be stressed, is a dove and no enthusiast of settlements -- was presumably fielding a similar appeal from Biden when he tried to remind him of elementary biological reality, and, moreover, of the fact that Israel is not a Chinese-style dictatorship.
Indeed, these days almost all Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, is of the natural-growth variety (which, it must be confessed, includes building new houses for growing families). The days when Israel assertively built new settlements in the territories in defiance of U.S. wishes are gone. The result, though, of settlement activity -- including "natural growth" -- going back to 1967 is that today a total of about 300,000 Israelis live in the West Bank.
Of those, about two-thirds live in the "large settlement blocs." In his April 14, 2004, letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then-President George W. Bush stated that:
As part of a final [Israeli-Palestinian] peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.
That sets out U.S. policy -- and, one might add, moral and practical sanity -- pretty clearly: ejecting those 200,000 people in the "major population centers" is not in the cards, whatever their "natural growth."
And what about the other 100,000? Most of these live in areas beyond the security fence, and most of them are the more ideological type of settlers who feel a strong religious attachment to Judea and Samaria. Of these, the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren -- also, by the way, no particular enthusiast of settlements -- writes this month in Commentary:
The creation of Palestinian government, even within the parameters of the deal proposed by President Clinton in 2000, would require the removal of at least 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes. The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF troops -- the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- and was profoundly traumatic. And unlike the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, which is now called the West Bank, Gaza has never been universally regarded as part of the historical Land of Israel.
No, with a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement nowhere in sight, and with the removal of all those settlers having become a practical impossibility, it looks as if the roadmap's, Rice's, and Biden's worst nightmare -- that Israelis will keep living in these places, and keep, if I may be blunt, having babies -- is going to come true.
Which brings us, of course, to the moral issue that has long been obscured and forgotten: why would "peace" entail the forced expulsion of at least 100,000 people, and even if a sovereign Palestinian entity were to arise in the West Bank, why would it have to be Judenrein?
That it has, for the most part, been bipartisan U.S. policy for decades -- notwithstanding America's own religious and ideological roots in the Bible and the Land of Israel -- to bow to the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim demand for a Judenrein Judea is what leads top American officials to accost Israel about "natural growth" without realizing that they thereby trample the most fundamental human, or at least Western, norms.