In the Trump Administration’s Favorite Settlement, Spirits Are Down

A visit to Beit El in the West Bank finds U.S. immigrants downbeat about the new president’s actions, after he promised so much during the election campaign. But as one settler notes, 'No American president can make much change here'

A general view of the Israeli settlement of Beit El near Ramallah in the West Bank, February 16, 2017.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

While others around him succumb to anger and disappointment, Shlomo Blum – a challah maker at a popular bakery in the West Bank settlement of Beit El – won’t say a bad word about President Donald Trump.

“I have full faith that he will do what he said,” says Blum, 60, an American immigrant originally from Verona, New Jersey. “He loves Israel, and he loves the Jewish people. I still believe he’s going to let us build as much as we want out here, and he’s going to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.”

“You’re a little naive, you know,” says David Yosef, a young settlement resident who is helping out on this busy morning.

Canadian-born Max Enkin can’t resist adding his own two cents. “You seem to forget that what Trump has always talked about is making America great again,” he tells Blum, “not making Israel bigger.”

“They go hand in hand,” Blum retorts.

Shlomo Blum at Herby's Bakery in Beit El. "Trump loves Israel, and he loves the Jewish people. I still believe he’s going to let us build as much as we want out here."
Judy Maltz

If it isn’t already obvious, not many in this West Bank settlement still share Blum’s optimism about the changing of the guard in the United States. Just days before the U.S. president’s first visit to Israel, few here are holding their breath. Indeed, the initial euphoria that greeted Trump’s election victory among Israeli settlers – in Beit El and elsewhere – has since given way to sobriety and even trepidation.

“I am definitely less optimistic than I was,” says Yael Ben-Yashar, a local tour guide who also serves as the Beit El municipality spokeswoman, “and I would say even a bit disappointed.”

During his campaign, Trump promised he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in his first days in office. In a sharp departure from long-standing U.S. policy, he said he was no longer bound to the two-state solution, going so far as to appoint David Friedman – an Orthodox Jew and a big fan of the settlements – as his ambassador to Israel.

Because they felt they held a special place in the hearts of those who made up Trump’s inner circle, the Beit El settlers were probably more upbeat than most after the presidential election. After all, Friedman had run an organization that raised millions of dollars a year for institutions and projects in the settlement; the parents of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, had donated thousands of dollars over the years to them, too; and the president himself had once handed over a check for $10,000 to Friedman’s organization.

But four months after he assumed office, little on the ground has changed. The U.S. Embassy has yet to be moved, and it seems less and less likely it will be. The only U.S. presidential nominee to have opened a campaign office in a West Bank settlement has since warned Israel to go easy on construction over the pre-1967 borders (aka the Green Line). He also appears to have forged a cozy relationship with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

None of these developments, it would seem, bode well for supporters of the so-called Greater Land of Israel.

But judging from conversations here in Beit El, most settlers are not holding Trump accountable for the fact things have turned sour. Many of them, like Enkin, tend to believe the fault lies with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader, they suspect, has been secretly encouraging the U.S. administration to tie his hands, so as not to provoke another round of violence with the Palestinians.

“As far as I know, Bibi still has his shadow,” says Enkin, referring to the prime minister by his nickname and insinuating that he is primarily motivated by fear. Although he had believed that pressure on Israel to stop building in the settlements would ease once Trump became president, Enkin says that, in retrospect, he “didn’t take into account that we have our own bureaucracy to deal with here.”

Five years ago, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the evacuation of Ulpana, a neighborhood that had been built illegally in Beit El on privately owned Palestinian land. In return, the government promised the residents that another 300 housing units would be built in the settlement, situated just north of Ramallah. That promise was never fulfilled, presumably because of pressure on Israel from the Obama administration.

But when this reporter visited the settlement in January, just after Trump moved into the White House, hopes were high that those 300 housing units would finally be built, providing much needed housing for young couples. “It hasn’t happened,” says Ben-Yashar. “There has been absolutely no new building here since Trump took office.”

No trust

Established more than 30 years ago by a U.S. immigrant from Memphis, Tennessee, Herby’s Bake Shop is a popular local institution. In preparation for the weekend rush, extra staff are on hand this morning. Almost all the bakers are native English speakers, and while they cut, knead and braid dough for challahs, American hits from the 1960s and ’70s accompany them on the sound system.

Preparing challahs at Herby’s Bake Shop in Beit El, with owner Herby Dan on the left, May 17, 2017.
Judy Maltz

“I didn’t know much about Trump before the election,” says proprietor Herby Dan, who still speaks with a strong southern drawl despite the many years he has spent away from the United States. “But I never would have voted for Hillary Clinton, no matter what.” Like many others here, he says he was far more upbeat when Trump was elected than he is now. “The truth is, I really don’t know what to think anymore,” he confides. “I don’t trust the American government, and I don’t trust the Israeli government either.”

Yosef, the young helping hand, had also believed a new era was dawning in American-Israeli relations, he says, only to find himself quickly disappointed. “I figured that anything had to be better than [Barack] Obama,” he says, “but now I realize you can’t really trust campaign promises – or at least you need to take them with a grain of salt.”

Most disturbing for him were recent statements issued by the Trump administration questioning Jewish control of the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. “That really made me angry,” says Yosef. “I definitely didn’t expect anything like that, and it made me wonder how stable he is and whether or not he needs to get his own act together before changing things in this part of the world.”

None of this talk sways Blum, however. “Trump knows how to run companies and he knows how to get things done,” he says. “He doesn’t play games, and I have a feeling he’s going to do something drastic against the Arabs in Judea and Samaria,” he adds, referring to the West Bank.

Blum, who proudly describes himself as a “Kahanist” – a follower of the late ultranationalist, racist Rabbi Meir Kahane – works in Beit El but lives in another nearby settlement, also relatively far from the Green Line and also quite radical. Arguably one of Trump’s most loyal fans in these parts, he boasts that he named his eldest son Meir after Kahane, whose Kach party was outlawed in Israel, and his daughter Bracha after Baruch Goldstein, the settler doctor who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, in 1994.

“If there’s no building going on in the settlements,” says Blum, “it’s Bibi and his so-called ‘right-wing’ gang who are to blame. What Trump cares about, on the other hand, is the good of Israel.”

Enkin cuts him off again. “Yeah, if he’s such a great businessman, as you say, than you’ve got to ask yourself what he’s going to ask for in return. He’s not stupid, and he’s not going to give Israel all these things without asking for some concessions.”

‘In the doghouse’

One of the oldest West Bank settlements, Beit El, with a population of some 6,500, is situated about 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) east of the Green Line. It is mentioned in the Bible (as Beth-el) more than any other place except for Jerusalem, explaining its attraction for many religious Jews. The main tourist site is an ancient rock on the outskirts of the settlement, where legend has it Jacob had his famous dream, described in Genesis 28:12, of angels ascending and descending a ladder.

Hillel Manne was among those drawn to this place because of its biblical connection. Originally from Palo Alto, California, he moved here in 1996 and founded the settlement’s boutique winery. A lifelong Democrat, he didn’t bother voting in the last election, he says – and even if he had, he doesn’t believe it would have made much of a difference. “No American president can make much change here,” he says, “because U.S. foreign policy is controlled by the State Department and it always has been. There’s not much a president can do as a result. All those Israelis who were so excited by Trump simply didn’t understand that.”

Hillel Manne. "No American president can make much change here."
Judy Maltz

The implication for Israel, he says, is that “we’re in the doghouse whether we build in the settlements or not.”

Yehuda Hakohen, a former New Yorker who has lived in Beit El since 2001, tends to agree. Addressing Trump’s apparent change of heart on Israel, he says it was all to be expected. “The United States has had a consistent foreign policy that has transcended party lines, and it really doesn’t matter who is president. I, for one, never thought Donald Trump would be able to change this policy once he got elected.”

Because he does not believe any solution can be imposed from the outside, Hakohen has become active in a group he describes as “alternative peace activists”: settlers and Palestinians who support a single-state solution.

“I don’t think Donald Trump is going to make this part of the world his top priority and, as far as I’m concerned, the United States has no right to get involved,” adds Hakohen. “They should stay out of the conflict and out of the Middle East.”

Over at Herby’s Bake Shop, Enkin is also adjusting his expectations. What does he think will come out of the Trump visit? “Lots of traffic jams,” he responds, moving on to the next challah.