Saturday, January 1, 2011

Budgeting West Bank Settlements

One of the meta-narratives of Israel's political Left these past three or four decades has been that the settlement project costs billions, and if it didn't exist there would be lots and lots of money for worthier things. Haaretz handed the job of presenting the case this year to Akiva Eldar, a veteran reporter with great command of his material. Of course, he's also first and foremost an ideological journalist, which means that while he'll never lie, he'll routinely cast his data in the mode he thinks will best serve his agenda. This also means that if a reader has his own command of the data, Eldar's articles can sometimes lead to surprising and unintended insights.

Here's his presentation, claiming the national budget which just passed allocates more than 2 billion NIS to the settlements. Feel free to read it in its entirety before continuing with my comments.

Eldar's first omission is the overall size of the budget. It's about 350 billion NIS (the $ is currently about 3.5 NIS). Which means less than 1% of the budget goes to West Bank settlements.

How many Israelis live on the WB? That depends how you count them. If you mean all Israelis who live beyond the Green Line including in Jerusalem, it may be about 500,000, though to them you'd need to add the 270,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem who also benefit from the budget. Say, 800,000 people from a population of 7.7 million. And they're allocated less than 1% of the budget? Is this possible?

Clearly that's not what Eldar means. What does he mean? It's hard to tell, since well over a billion of the NIS he's informing us of are earmarked one way or the other for projects in Jerusalem or nearby Maaleh Adumim, yet he never mentions the cost of routine or long term services for the roughly 1,000,000 people in the area. He chooses a few projects he doesn't like, and overlooks the rest.

So far as I can see from his very opaque numbers, the sums allocated to construction of any sort in the settlements beyond the barrier, i.e. those even the Bush administration always intended to be Palestinian, can't be more than a few hundred million NIS, for a population of, I'd guess, less than 100,000.That's serious money, and I agree with Eldar it's money spent unwisely, but it's hardly more than 0.1% of the national budget. Hardly earth shattering.

Note also how he totes op the 900 million (out of 2.5 billion which are the subject of his report) allocated to three colleges on the West Bank. Say Israel were to evacuate the WB tomorrow morning: would that expense disappear? Don't the people going to college need to be budgeted no matter which hill the college is on? Not to mention that in the largest of the three, at Ariel, a sizable minority of the students are Israeli Arabs, whose education costs Eldar has just deftly counted as part of the Israeli efforts to build on the West Bank.

It would be easy to pick apart additional numbers from his report, but there's no need. Even according to his own narrative, Israel is clearly putting only minor sums into the settlement project, and even parts of that are covering expenses generated by people, not settlements, i.e they'd need covering in any case. Hardly what Haaretz and their veteran reporter hoped we'd understand from their article.

Due disclosure: I think any investment beyond the line of the barrier is a waste, since my consistent position for decades has been that Israel shouldn't be building there, even if I understand why it has. But I don't appreciate demagogic manipulations.


AKUS said...

The continuing attempt to paint places like Maale Adumim or even French Hill, Pisgat Zeev, etc. as "settlements" has been one of the worst mistakes made by anyone who is genuinely interested in an agreement with the WB Arabs. Even without reading his article, I fear that Eldar, who very often is a rare voice of sanity in the mini-Guardian has fallen in to this trap.

Perhaps as importantly, for all those screaming about continuing Israeli expansion, new settlements etc. - was there, in fact, a single new settlement set up in 2010? I haven't been able to find a record of it.

Finally, as you point out, the Israeli budget is NIS350B - about $100B. That is large enough that the frequent claims that if America no longer provided Israel with $3 billion to buy its weapons in the US, it would stop the "settlements" are nonsense. In fact, while it would be nice to continue getting $3B, it is hardly something that would result in the diversion of $500,000 - $600,000 from "settlement" activity.

NormanF said...

Akiva Eldar was dishonest... he took true facts and it made it seem like settlement building occupied a huge chunk of Israel's budget.

Um.... no, it doesn't. And even if this expense disappeared completely, it doesn't change for one minute the fact the settlements have zero impact on the peace process.

That's right, they have zero impact upon it.

Anonymous said...

The development of the Leviathan gas field has the potential to be a game-changer. This is so, if Israel becomes a gas supplier to Europe and rakes in large revenue. An energy - hungry Europe dependant on Israeli gas supply will become less fixated on "settlements" and will be more accomodating to the Israeli point of view. It will be amusing seeing the European BDS movement try to push a boycott of Israel gas supplies to Europe!

Yaacov said...


It's a lot of gas, but it's not THAT much. A pity, tho. Your scenario would have been fun to watch.

Victor said...

Maybe Eldar should calculate the cost of relocating and reimbursing the net worth of 70-100,000 people. Didn't the Gaza evacuees receive $250k per household?

Bruce said...

It seems to me that this argument, while perhaps a persuasive retort to the "settlements versus butter arguments, misses the important point. The salient issue was and remains whether settlements impede the prospects for a peaceful settlement and/or reduce Israel's global credibility and, if so, whether other considerations outweigh any such negatives.

Victor said...

Then let's argue that point on its merits, instead of being dragged into "settlements versus butter", or "settlements versus Iran", or "settlements versus democracy" arguments. You can't create a multi-pronged anti-settlement approach and when your many lines of attack begin to unravel start complaining that they were never at issue to begin with.

Barry Meislin said...

The salient issue was and remains whether settlements impede the prospects for a peaceful settlement and/or reduce Israel's global credibility and, if so, whether other considerations outweigh any such negatives.

I'd be inclined to agree, except that first, I'd like to know how "peace" is defined; and second, I'm not sure that the downward spiral of "Israel's global credibility" will be affected no matter what happens and no matter your definition of "peace" might be.

(Other than that, yes, of course, certainly.)

RK said...

Great post, this.

Yaacov said...

Thank you, RK! I appreciate it, coming from you.