Invitations in Hand, West Bank Settlers Head to Inauguration

After repeated clashes with Obama, Israel's nationalist right has high expectations for Trump

For nearly 50 years, Israel's settler movement has been criticized, condemned and ostracized by the international community. But on Friday, they say they will be greeted with open arms as invited guests to President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration.

A warm welcome in Washington would be by far the settlers' greatest accomplishment in terms of gaining international legitimacy, and reflects both the extraordinary nature of the Trump era and their own evolution into a dominant political force in Israel.

"I definitely agree that we are now getting the VIP treatment, which is something that we have been working on for many years," said Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing Israel's more than 120 West Bank settlements. "You could basically argue that it has taken 50 years, since 1967, to be recognized on such a level for such an event."

Revivi, who is mayor of the fast-growing Efrat settlement near Jerusalem, is leading the delegation on Friday, joined by two other mayors. He said the invite came from a member of Trump's "first circle" of advisers, but refused to name the person.

His office gave The Associated Press photos of invitations to the main inauguration ceremony and an inaugural ball.

When asked if Trump, his incoming administration or inaugural committee had invited the settlers, inaugural committee spokesman Boris Epshteyn did not answer the question, saying in a statement only that no heads of state or heads of government were among the invited guests.

"The only representatives who will be invited are members of the diplomatic corps who are based here in Washington, D.C.," he said. Epshteyn did not reply to follow-up questions.

The invitation — the first of its kind for the settlers — is a stunning change for the movement, which began after Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.

Today, there are some 400,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements, in addition to roughly 200,000 Israelis in east Jerusalem, also captured in 1967. The Palestinians, with wide international backing, seek both areas for a future independent state.

For decades, U.S. presidents have joined the international community in condemning the settlements as obstacles to the peace process. Last month, the Obama administration allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the settlements as a "flagrant violation" of international law. In a farewell speech, Secretary of State John Kerry also harshly criticized the settlements.

The settlers and their allies, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defend the settlements on both security and religious grounds. They say east Jerusalem, home to key holy sites, is an eternal part of Israel's capital and not up for negotiation.

After repeated clashes with Obama, Israel's nationalist right has high expectations for Trump, who has signaled he will take a much kinder approach toward them.

Trump has appointed David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has raised millions of dollars for the Beit El settlement, as his ambassador to Israel. 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. 

"I think the new administration is definitely going to be one which is more responsive, more understanding and that is what's bringing definitely a lot of hope," Revivi said. 

Having such access was unthinkable just a few months ago. Revivi described the Obama years as "frustrating."

He said the new opportunities with Trump were the result of years of intense diplomatic efforts by the settler movement to forge ties with American officials, lawmakers and community leaders. During the presidential campaign, Trump supporters in Israel set up their headquarters in the West Bank to encourage American expatriates to support their candidate.

Revivi said he has a "detailed shopping list" for the coming years that goes beyond expanded settlement construction, but he declined to elaborate, saying much would depend on Netanyahu and Trump.

"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. 

Yesha opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, but is also against the creation of a single "binational state" of Jews and Palestinians. Revivi said he favors an approach that would improve the quality of life for the West Bank's 2.3 million Palestinians, but not give them Israeli citizenship.

Critics say this is unsustainable, and that the continued occupation will eventually force Israel to choose between remaining Jewish or democratic. 

Trump's campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and he has shown little affinity for the Palestinians. No Palestinian officials or dignitaries are believed to have been invited to the inauguration.

Trump also has promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — a key Israeli demand opposed by the Palestinians.

Pro-settlement lawmakers plan to introduce a bill Sunday calling on Israel to annex the large West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim. The bill's advocates say the timing is intentional because they believe the new administration will not oppose the move.

The Palestinians have issued dire warnings about any embassy move, saying it would prejudge negotiations on one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict. President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to revoke recognition of Israel and cut off security ties, and religious leaders said Thursday an embassy move would "drag the whole region into a religious feud that may have dire consequences."

Hanan Ashrawi, a top Palestinian official, said the incoming administration has sent "very alarming signals" about its intentions.

"By linking up with the settlers and the illegal settlements enterprise, Trump is placing the new American administration squarely outside the law and is encouraging Israeli lawlessness," she said. "He is destroying the chances of peace and preparing for further conflict and instability and violence."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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