ELI, West Bank — Singing and dancing greeted a triumphant Benjamin Netanyahu when he visited Eli, then a young settlement of 959 residents, shortly after first becoming Israel’s prime minister in 1996. “We will be here permanently forever,” he declared in nearby Ariel that day, promising to renew the internationally contentious construction of Jewish communities across the land Palestinians plan as their future state.
Struggling for settlers’ support ahead of Israel’s March 17 elections, Mr. Netanyahu returned last month to Eli, now a boomtown of more than 4,000 people that sprawls across six hilltops amid Palestinian villages and farmland. This time, he did not speak about new building, but his presence was a statement in itself: Eli is among dozens of isolated settlements whose expansion and entrenchment threaten the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Steady growth of settlements across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which most world leaders consider violations of international law, complicates both the creation of a viable Palestine and the challenge of someday uprooting Israelis, who are now raising a second and third generation in contested areas.
Along the road from Eli to Ariel one recent afternoon, a Palestinian man grazed a few cows and sheep on a grassy hillside, and scores of teenagers in white Islamic head scarves walked home from school. Inside the settlement’s gate, where a new shopping complex opened last year, bulldozers were at work on construction of a $3.8 million, 300,000-square-foot community center.
A sign at the entrance announced, “Eli: A Big Place to Grow.”
As Mr. Netanyahu seeks a fourth term, his record on settlements is a central element of his troubled relationship with Washington, alongside the divergence on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Construction in the West Bank is also at the heart of mounting European criticism of Israel.
In the campaign, Mr. Netanyahu is navigating between his center-left challenger, Isaac Herzog, who promised to freeze construction beyond the so-called settlement blocks near Israel’s pre-1967 lines, and rightists who say the prime minister has not built nearly enough.
An analysis of planning, construction, population and spending data over the past two decades shows that Mr. Netanyahu was an aggressive builder during his first premiership in the 1990s, when the West Bank settler population rose at roughly three times the total Israeli rate.
But since returning to Israel’s helm in 2009, Mr. Netanyahu has logged a record similar to the less-conservative leaders sandwiched between, with those settlements swelling about twice as fast as Israel overall.