For nearly half a century, American presidents of both parties have joined the rest of the international community in condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands and labelling them one of the main obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Then Donald Trump won the presidency. And today, three prominent leaders of Israel’s settler movement are being treated as honored guests at Trump’s inauguration ceremony and ball, both of which they were explicitly invited to attend.
“I definitely agree that we are now getting the VIP treatment, which is something that we have been working on for many years,” Oded Revivi, the mayor of the West Bank settlement of Efrat and a top official with the Yesha Council, the main advocacy group for Jewish settlers, told the Times of Israel. “You could basically argue that it has taken 50 years, since 1967, to be recognized on such a level for such an event.”
Revivi came to Washington with two other prominent leaders in the settler movement — Benny Kashriel, mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim, the third largest Jewish city in the West Bank, and Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, which provides municipal services for the 35 Jewish towns and settlements in the northern region of the West Bank.
It’s not entirely clear where their invitations came from. Revivi said the invite came from a member of Trump’s “first circle” of advisers, but he refused to say who specifically.
But the fact that these men were invited by someone close to the new president is no accident. It sends a clear message: Under the new Trump administration, the US relationship with Israel is going to be very different.
Most of the world considers these settlements illegal
The Jewish communities in question are in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both of which were captured by Israel during 1967’s Six-Day War. They range in size from small outposts of just a few dozen people to Ariel, home to some 20,000 people and a thriving university.
Two of the more controversial settlements lie inside and adjacent to Hebron, a large Palestinian city that houses the burial place of Abraham, making it one of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam. Dozens of Jews and Muslims have been killed in political violence there in recent decades.
There is strong international consensus on the illegality of Israeli settlements. This is based on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans nations from the moving of populations into and the establishing of settlements in the territory of another nation won in war. Many Israelis strongly dispute that interpretation, since there has never been an independent state of Palestine, which means that the West Bank and Gaza weren’t technically a nation when the territories were conquered by Israel.
And in a stunning diplomatic rebuke of Israel, the United States in late December abstained on a controversial United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, allowing it to pass easily. By abstaining — instead of vetoing the resolution, as the United States has reliably done to similar measures for decades — the Obama administration allowed the highly symbolic measure to make it through the chamber.
Israel’s right-wing government, led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pushes back against the argument that Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is illegal, and maintains that their final status should be determined in future negotiations on Palestinian statehood, not by the United Nations.
The government’s rightward shift toward a more pro-settlement stance in recent years is in part a result of the rapid growth of Israel’s settler population.
According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the annual growth rate for the settler population (excluding East Jerusalem) in 2013 was more than two and a half times higher than that of the overall population in Israel: 4.4 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively.
Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry, in a speech in December defending the Obama administration’s decision to abstain on the UN vote, noted that the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, has increased by nearly 270,000 since the Oslo peace accords (signed in 1993 and 1995), including 100,000 just since 2009, when Obama took office.
As Vox’s Johnny Harris notes, “Over time, and especially as Israeli politics has shifted rightward, the settler movement has become an institutionalized part of Israeli society.”
Trump is breaking with longstanding US policy
Trump has ripped the Obama administration for its treatment of Israel, including its decision to abstain on the UN settlement vote, and promised that things will change when he takes office:
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
Trump’s newly named ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — who has been a personal friend of Trump’s for about 15 years — is also staunchly pro-settlement. The Times of Israel reports that Friedman has raised millions of dollars for the Beit El settlement, as the new US ambassador to Israel. They also note that “The foundation run by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has also supported Beit El, and Trump himself has donated money to a Jewish seminary in the settlement through his foundation, tax records show.”
Trump has also promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly controversial and symbolic move that the US Congress supports but that every US president so far has purposely avoided doing. Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Thursday that an announcement on moving the embassy to Jerusalem was "coming soon," while Trump himself told the Israel Hayom daily this week that he "hasn't forgotten" his promise to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
"And you know I'm not a person who breaks his promises," he said.
Although Israel considers Jerusalem its national capital, most of the rest of the world doesn’t — believing instead that the final status of Jerusalem (who controls which areas and who can access which holy sites) should be determined as part of broader peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
Trump inviting the settler movement leaders to his inauguration ceremony is thus a highly symbolic gesture meant to send a clear signal that he’s serious about his stance on Israel, and that things really are going to change under his administration.
“Inviting us over to his ceremony is an indication that the relationship is going to be different. When you have a dialogue, when you have a tight relationship, the sky is the limit,” Revivi said.