This year marks the 50th anniversary of Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War.
The series of battles in the summer of 1967 ended in humiliating defeat for Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian forces, and with Israel seizing control of the eastern sector of Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
For almost as long, American presidents have been warning the Israelis not to build settlements on occupied lands. That long-standing policy makes it hard to imagine previous US administrations inviting leaders from the Jewish settler movement to a presidential inauguration.
“I’ve never had the privilege of being in such event, and definitely not holding an official invitation,” says 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.
Revivi will be among a group of settler leaders at the inauguration in Washington on Friday. And he says he sees their attendance as a sign the incoming Donald Trump administration might be ready to make big changes in the US approach toward Israel and the Palestinians.
“We are happy with that approach, and also flattered by the fact that we [were] thought of and invited,” Revivi says.
Nearly every settler leader I've spoken to in the last few days is boarding a plane in 24 hours to Washington for the #TrumpInauguration— Anshel Pfeffer (@AnshelPfeffer) January 16, 2017
There are other good signs, in Revivi’s view.
First, there’s Trump's pledge to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel considers Jerusalem its national capital and Trump has said his government will too, even though most of the rest of the world does not. Then, there’s Trump’s choice of someone who’s been a strong supporter of West Bank settlements, David Friedman, as US ambassador to Israel.
Revivi says Barack Obama’s administration had the wrong approach. “They see here two groups of people. ‘Let’s draw a line in between.’ We’ve been there. We’ve done that. It didn’t bring peace.”
“A new attitude needs to be brought to the table,” Revivi says.
In another rare move, at least two Israeli lawmakers will be at Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony. One of them is Yehuda Glick, a Brooklyn-born member of the right-wing Likud Party led by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Glick also lives at a settlement in the West Bank, which many Israeli Jews refer to by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria. Glick goes out of his way to praise Barack Obama for his support of Israel, but he also hopes that the Trump administration takes a new direction by giving up on the old formula of a two-state solution.
“We should establish and implement Israeli law all over Judea and Samaria, and once and for all, stop developing illusions which are not practical anymore,” Glick says. No one should be uprooted from where they live in the West Bank, he adds.
“Unfortunately, the Palestinians have never missed a chance to miss a chance. And the option of a Palestinian state is no longer an option.”
Glick says the one-state option, with Israel controlling all of the West Bank and the Palestinians living there becoming Israeli citizens, is really the best option for both sides in the long term.
At her confirmation hearing in the US Senate on Wednesday, Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said she supported moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, where Palestinians also hope to build their future national capital.
But when Haley was asked if she supported a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, without hesitation, she said, “I do.”
In the past, White House officials have stayed in touch with the office of Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, the top Palestinian diplomat based in Washington. But Areikat says he has not heard anything from the Trump transition team. He also sees the invitation of Israeli settlers to Friday’s inauguration as a troubling sign.
“It is kind of worrying and alarming to see these people present at the inauguration of the president of the United States, when we know clearly that the United States has always been opposed to illegal settlement activities and the presence of settlers on occupied Palestinian territory,” Areikat says.
During his final news conference as president on Wednesday, Obama defended his record on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said his recent decision for the US to abstain from a UN resolution condemning the expansion of settlements was meant as a warning, because he said reaching a two-state solution might not be possible for much longer.
Obama said he cannot see an alternative to the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. And he offered some advice to the incoming administration.
“It is right and appropriate for a new president to test old assumptions and re-examine the old ways of doing things. But if you’re going to make big shifts in policy, just make sure you’ve thought it through,” Obama said.
“Understand that there are going to be consequences, and actions typically have reactions.”
Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution says she is not sure whether Trump has given up on the idea of a two-state solution.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of a number of controversial international policy issues to which Donald Trump has not given a great deal of deep thought yet,” Wittes says. “But it is, among many other issues on that list, one that is landing on his doorstep.”
Wittes says this is a moment of truth for US diplomacy in the Middle East, and in particular with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “And it really is true that the words of an American president can have powerful effects on the ground, especially in very heated conflicts like this one.”