JERUSALEM – Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected more than three years ago, the Jewish population in the West Bank has ballooned by 18 percent, drawing tens of thousands of Israelis to the territory the Palestinians claim as the heartland of a future state, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press.
The rate of growth — nearly twice that of Israel proper — has deep implications for an already moribund peace process. The issue is at the heart of a three-year-old impasse in Mideast peace efforts, and critics say each new settlement home makes it ever tougher for the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach the territorial compromise that would be needed for any agreement.
The rising settler numbers are "consistent with Netanyahu's commitment to maintain the Israeli control over the Palestinian territories and consistent with his lack of commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution," Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said.
Israel, which has a population of almost 8 million, has long sought to cement its hold on the West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, by having masses of Jewish settlers live there. For years, the two sides had discussed the possibility that in a final peace deal, Israel would maintain some settlements while uprooting others. Israel has shown more than once — especially when it removed all of its 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 — that it can tear down settlements when it thinks the price is worth it.
But the numbers in the West Bank are much higher, more than tripling since the first interim peace accord of 1993 to more than 342,000 at the end of 2011, according to Interior Ministry figures.
That includes a rise of more than 50,000, or 18 percent, since Netanyahu was elected in early 2009, driven by a high settler birth rate and the migration of Israelis to the West Bank.
The numbers do not include some 200,000 Jews living in areas of Jerusalem that Israel captured in the 1967 war and immediately annexed. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their capital, and along with the international community, consider these enclaves to be settlements. Israel says east Jerusalem is part of Israel because of the annexation.
With nearly 10 percent of Israel's 6 million Jews now living on occupied territory, the growing settler population has in effect erased the pre-1967 frontier, said pro-settler Jerusalem Post commentator Michael Freund.
"Jewish life in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem is growing and flourishing, and there is no human power on earth that is going to uproot or move hundreds of thousands of Jews from places such as Ariel, Tekoa or Hebron," he wrote in a recent column, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name and naming three settlements there.
The Palestinian growth rate in the West Bank, in the meantime, was far lower: In 2011, the population grew 2.8 percent to 2.19 million, from 2.13 million a year earlier, according to the Palestinian bureau of statistics.
Palestinians, who hope to create a state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, consider the huge growth in the settlement population a violation of peace accords that barred both sides from altering the status quo through unilateral actions. They have demanded Israel halt all settlement construction as the price for resuming talks.
The settler growth rate is roughly in line with that of previous dovish Israeli governments. But the Palestinians express additional alarm over the leadership of Netanyahu, a longtime settler patron who repeatedly has ruled out the type of broad withdrawal the Palestinians demand.
Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian demand for a construction freeze, saying the fate of settlements should be decided in negotiations. In the meantime, his government has authorized the construction of thousands of settler apartments. Just last week, Netanyahu vowed to continue settling the West Bank, including areas deep inside the territory.
A government-commissioned report released Monday could clear the way for further construction. It recommended that Israel legalize dozens of unsanctioned West Bank settlement outposts despite international opposition to the enclaves and proposed other measures to facilitate settlement construction. That could give Netanyahu ammunition to support new settlement activity and fend off pressure from a Supreme Court that has ordered the government to take action against the existing outposts.
The report was not binding and it was not clear whether the prime minister planned to follow through on it. In a statement, he said he would study the document with top advisers.
Commenting on the report, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said: "We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity and we oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts."
He added that Deputy Secretary of State William Burns would visit Israel and the West Bank this week.
Israel began building its more than 120 West Bank settlements immediately after the 1967 Mideast war, drawing sharp criticism from the international community. Israel promised not to establish new settlements as part of its commitment to peacemaking in the mid-1990s. But earlier this year, it retroactively recognized three unsanctioned settler enclaves as bonafide settlements. It also has allowed existing settlements to continue to grow.
The rise in the settler population can be attributed largely to a birth rate topping 4 percent, more than double the national Jewish average. But about one-third derives from Israelis who moved to the West Bank in recent years, according to the Israeli central statistics bureau. Many have come for cheaper housing. Others are ideologically drawn to land they believe was promised to Jews in the Bible.
About three-quarters of the settlers live in three blocs Israel hopes to retain in any peace deal. Most of these settlements are located along the Israeli frontier, which would make it technically easy to redraw the border and compensate the Palestinians with alternative land swaps, should they agree to such an accommodation.
But even that would still leave about 85,000 settlers to remove, many of them hard-line ideologues in small, isolated settlements that are likely to oppose eviction. If Israel's traumatic withdrawal from Gaza proved anything, it was that the removal of tens of thousands of settlers would be a colossal and possibly violent task.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said he was "not surprised" by the higher settler growth rate because the population includes many religious families and young couples, groups that tend to have many children. He said this trend would have no bearing on peace prospects.
"Most of the growth is in large settlement blocs, which in any case will be remaining part of Israel in any final status agreement," he said.
Regev claimed every peace plan floated over the past two decades left the blocs in Israeli hands. Khatib acknowledged territorial swaps have been discussed but said no formal agreement was ever reached.
Hagit Ofran of the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now says construction patterns have shifted in the Netanyahu years. If, in the past, 80 percent of new construction took place in the blocs, then during Netanyahu's first 2 1/2 years in office, that number dropped to about 70 percent, she said.
"That means ideological settlers, the more radical, religious ones, are growing in number," she said, though she thinks construction this year might hew closer to the older pattern.