JERUSALEM — A review of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's settlement policies shows a clear intent to prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state by stepping up construction in strategic areas, an Israeli anti-settlement group said Wednesday.
During Netanyahu's four-year term, 38 percent of nearly 6,900 West Bank construction starts were reported in settlements deep inside the territory, compared to 20 percent under his predecessors, the Peace Now group said.
The report by the watchdog was released a week before Israel's parliamentary elections, which Netanyahu appears poised to win.
According to the report, the government also issued bids for 5,302 settlement apartments in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and advanced planning for thousands more, the group said. The group's findings were based on aerial photos, field visits and official reports.
The latest bids were issued on Tuesday, when the government asked developers to compete to build 84 apartments in Kiryat Arba, a settlement near the West Bank city of Hebron, and 114 in Efrat, a major settlement south of Jerusalem.
The Palestinians want the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, for a future state. In November, the U.N. General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in these borders, over Israel's objections.
Israel still occupies the West Bank and east Jerusalem and while it withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza, it controls most access to the coastal territory, now ruled by Hamas militants.
Netanyahu has said he's willing to negotiate the borders of a Palestinian state, but wants to keep east Jerusalem – the hoped-for capital of the Palestinians – and chunks of the West Bank. Netanyahu has rejected a Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze during negotiations, and talks have been on hold for the past four years.
Polls ahead of the Jan. 22 vote indicate Netanyahu is poised to win another four-year term.
Peace Now concluded that Netanyahu's policies in his first term "disclose a clear intention to use settlements to systematically undermine and render impossible a realistic, viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev denied the government is trying to undermine prospects for Palestinian statehood through settlement expansion.
Israel has "allowed construction in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs, areas that will remain part of Israel in any future peace agreement," he said.
Israel hasn't clearly defined settlement blocs, but they are believed to include larger settlements near Israel as well the Ariel enclave of 17,000 settlers in the heart of the West Bank. In all, about half a million Israelis live in dozens of settlements on war-won land, including nearly 200,000 in east Jerusalem and more than 300,000 in the West Bank.
Asked to comment on Peace Now's report of a sharp construction increase in more remote settlements, Regev said: "I don't know that figure to be true."
The Peace Now report said settlers in some of the more remote settlements built without approved plans or permits, but "with the tacit approval of the Netanyahu government."
In all, construction began on 6,867 apartments in West Bank settlements since Netanyahu took office in March 2009, the report said.
Thirty-eight of those apartments were located in Jewish enclaves east of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank, proposed by some in Israel – though not by Netanyahu – as a future border with the Palestinians.
Israel began building the barrier in 2002, portraying it as a defense against Palestinian militants who had killed hundreds of Israelis in an armed uprising. However, it meanders through the West Bank to scoop up Jewish settlements on the Israeli side, prompting allegations of a land grab under the guise of security.
Thirty-two percent of construction starts were west of the barrier, and close to 30 percent in areas where the route of the barrier is not final, the report said. The report said the count is not complete, and that the final figure is expected to be higher.
Although Netanyahu outdid his predecessors in terms of launching settlement construction deep inside the West Bank, Peace Now researcher Hagit Ofran said the annual average of construction starts in the Palestinian territory was slightly lower under Netanyahu than under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Since the 1970s, Israeli leaders have steadily expanded settlements, including Olmert who negotiated with Abbas in 2008, before resigning over corruption allegations.
However, Netanyahu has gone further than his predecessors in many ways, establishing facts on the ground that "are lethal to the two-state solution," Ofran said
In response to the Palestinians' successful U.N. recognition bid, Netanyahu announced he's moving forward with plans to build a new settlement with more than 3,400 apartments near Jerusalem, a location critics say with badly hurt prospects of setting up a Palestinian state with contiguous territory. In recent days, Palestinians have set up a protest tent camp in the area.
After initially curbing construction under U.S. pressure for 10 months early in his term, Netanyahu's government made up for lost time in the last two years, issuing tenders for 5,302 apartments in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the report said.
The bids pave the way "for an explosion of construction in settlements in coming years," Peace Now said.