For Israel's Right, Trump's Election Heralds Settlement Construction Surge

But there are doubts among those supporting settlements about the commitment and intentions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit overlooking the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin.
Emil Salman

Right-wing ministers, politicians and activists hope that Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election marks the end of “seven dry years” of settlement construction in the West Bank.

Their expectation now is that plans for new settlements in the West Bank, new Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods of the capital will come out of the deep freeze. They also hope Israel will resume its demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and that the U.S. will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“The prime minister’s entire policy is derived from American pressure,” says Avi Roeh, head of both the settlers’ Yesha Council and Binyamin Regional Council. “The Americans objected to anything that moved."

The “seven bad years” began in 2009, with the visit of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Israel. Biden was getting ready for dinner at the prime minister’s residence when the Israeli media reported that large-scale construction in the Ramat Shlomo housing development in East Jerusalem had been approved.

Biden was an hour and a half late for dinner and a huge crisis erupted between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Plans have been postponed, suspended or withdrawn ever since, though American pressure has not always been acknowledged.

“Every time there were excuses; once the chairman was sick and once the planner was ill,” says Ofer Iyov, head of the community administration in Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood built on West Bank land that was annexed to Israel.

Only two days ago, the hopes of the settlers and their supporters seemed to be fantasy. Now, with a new American administration on the way and in the assumed absence of future American pressure, everything seems possible. The Israeli foreign ministry estimates that the president-elect would reduce America's involvement in the Middle East in general and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular.

Not that anyone is opening the champagne yet. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump said he intended to make the "ultimate deal" and bring about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. 

Those who have worked with Netanyahu also know that he often used the excuse of American pressure as a means of averting right-wing criticism.

In general, the Obama administration opposed all plans for construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, though three plans in particular caused Washington to leap into action – the plan for construction in the E1 area near Ma’aleh Adumim, the plan for a neighborhood named Givat Eitam, between Efrat and Bethlehem, and the plan for the Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem. All three, according to left-wing organizations, would create Israeli territorial continuity in the Jerusalem region that would make any peace negotiations extremely difficult.

The White House accepted that logic and fought to prevent the implementation of the plans. All three have all been mired in red tape for years. Givat Eitam, which would create territorial conguity between the settlement of Efrat and Bethlehem, is regarded as being highly strategic by the settlers.

Haaretz reported in 2009 that 1,700 dunams of land in the area east of Efrat designated for Givat Eitem had been declared state property as a prelude to building more than 2,000 housing units there.

The plan to build a huge neighborhood of more than 3,000 housing units in E1 has been on ice since 2012. Then-Housing Minister Uri Ariel was reprimanded by Netanyahu when he tried to revive the plan in 2013. On Givat Hamatos, the plan to build 2,600 housing units for Jews was halted about three years ago.

Progress in the coming months on any of the plans would indicate a changed atmosphere between Jerusalem and Washington. In addition, Trump’s unexpected election victory has encouraged the supporters of settlement to dream of a large Jewish neighborhood in the Atarot industrial area outside Jerusalem, a Jewish neighborhood in the Muslim quarter of the Old City and another in Ras al Amud, a Palestinian neighborhood southeast of the Old City.

Two states for two people

Roeh, however, says the obstacle may not be in the White House after all. Netanyahu, he maintains, “is locked into his conception of two states for two peoples. He first has to change that position.”

Roeh sees the test as coming in the next few months, before Trump enters office. “This is our window of opportunity to decide what we want and create facts for the Americans,” he says.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Dov Kalmanovich, head of the city’s planning and building committee, agrees. “We must not continue surrendering,” he says. “There are plans for 2,600 housing units on Givat Hamatos, 3,000 in Gilo, 1,500 in Ramat Shlomo and many others that I intend to get approval for during the transition in Washington. Until now, we were told by the prime minister’s men to hold up plans and withdraw them. That is over. From now on we intend to take the plans out of deep freeze.”

“Nobody’s opening champagne,” a Likud Knesset member says. “There’s nothing with Trump yet. It’s not as if someone is coordinated with him and knows what’s going to happen. We hope he continues to support Israel, at least like other presidents did.”

The MK said heavy pressure will have to be exerted on the prime minister’s aides to break through the construction block. “We must change our own disc; we must stop talking about two states and start talking about construction, strengthening the settlements and applying our sovereignty,” he said.

The right wing believes that American objections to construction were very convenient for Netanyahu, who preferred to maintain the existing situation rather than anger the international community. In recent months, several MKs and the settler leadership have mounted a campaign to annex Ma’aleh Adumim. It would be an unprecedented step which, if approved, would evoke sharp international reaction.

But, in the absence of an American administration that objects to construction, Netanyahu will find it very difficult to justify inaction.

“We were in touch with Trump’s people during the campaign,” an official involved in the campaign to annex Ma’aleh Adumim said. “They indicated to us that they would respect any parliamentary decision; that they wouldn’t intervene.”

Jerusalem councilor and right-wing activist Aryeh King has been in touch with Trump’s people in recent months. “I have no doubt the pressure will subside. Now [Jerusalem Mayor Nir] Barkat and Netanyahu have an opportunity to create facts,” he said.

Demolishing as well as building

A more flexible American policy will also have an effect on Sussiya, a small Palestinian herding village in the South Hebron Hills which Israel wants to get rid of. Until now, the message from senior officials in the Obama administration was that destroying the village would lead “to an extremely sharp American response.”

If the expectations regarding Trump’s administration prove correct, as of January the sharpest American response will be a yawn, if anything at all. The villagers of  Sussiya fear they’re on the verge of eviction. “None of us thought this would happen,” one villager said. “We didn’t expect Trump to win. I don’t know what will happen, but there’s a feeling that things will be bad.”

In the absence of American pressure, the bulldozers could come not only to Sussiya. Government officials want to evacuate the Bedouin communities built without permits in the Gush Adumim area as well.

In the Trump era – whether or not there is significant construction in the settlements – America’s restraining hand is liable to disappear and Netanyahu is liable to find himself facing a new political obstacle.

“This is a tectonic shift,” says attorney Danny Seidman, who is identified with the Israeli left and has good international contacts. According him, “For decades now, there hasn’t been a period of two or three days in which there wasn’t conversation with the American administration. All the signs are that the brakes will disappear. But it’s like a family in which the father has died suddenly – now the older siblings have to take command .

“Europe has to take responsibility. It’s hard to know if they can replace America, but London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Brussels are not Trump ‘groupies’ and they have a foreign policy of their own.”

Will the empty lot become the embassy?

At the corner of Hebron Road and Daniel Yanovsky Street in Jerusalem stands an empty lot. It was allocated for the construction of the American embassy that was supposed to move to Jerusalem by the Israel Lands Administration at the end of the 1982, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Since then, however, all U.S. presidents have made sure to sign an order preventing the transfer of the embassy. In the meantime, the pine trees on the lot have continued to grow undisturbed.

Though Trump made few statements concerning the Middle East in his campaign, one of his more prominent remarks concerned the transfer of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump’s associate David Freedman, who has been mentioned as a future ambassador to Israel, said about two weeks ago at an event in Jerusalem in support of Trump that if anyone can stand up to the State Department it’s Donald Trump. If the State Department people say it is impossible to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem, because it is contrary to policy, he will tell them all: “You’re fired,” Freedman said.

However, it seems that since winning the election, the Trump camp has backpedaled on the issue. Trump’s foreign policy adviser Walid Phares refrained from repeating the pledge during an interview with the BBC and said that Trump had meant that the U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem if “consensus” was achieved on the idea.

The Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, responded on Friday that Trump moves the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the Palestinians would "make life miserable” for the United States at the United Nations."

Transferring the embassy, if it indeed happens, will be contrary to the position held by the entire international community since 1949 and could be expected to arouse anger in the Arab world. If the bulldozers do show up at the lot on Hebron Road, it will be the sign of a new era in the Middle East.