Two delegations of Israeli settlers are headed to Washington, D.C. this week for the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump.
The invitation extended to Israeli hardliners is a further sign that the Trump administration may be planning to embrace the West Bank settlement movement, breaking with decades of U.S. policy and effectively ending U.S. attempts to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state.
More than 600,000 Israelis live in settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which most of the world consider illegal under international law. Their location makes a contiguous Palestinian state impossible at present.
One inaugural delegation is led by Oded Revivi, the foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, an umbrella group for West Bank settlement municipal councils. Revivi told VICE News that his invitation came from “close circles around the president-elect,” though he would not name who reached out to him.
The other delegation is being lead by HaYovel, a Missouri-based evangelical Christian group that, according to its website, arranges for Americans to volunteer in West Bank settlements, “the heartland of Israel, where 80 percent of the Bible was either written or occurred.” The organization is bringing Yehuda Glick, a Knesset member who lives in a West Bank settlement; Sharren Haskel, a Likud lawmaker; and Jeremy Gimpel, an Israeli-American Rabbi who supports settlements and has a close relationship with American evangelicals.
HaYovel was invited to participate in inaugural galas and meetings by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian group that has hosted Trump and Vice President–elect Mike Pence at conferences. Christian evangelicals are the most pro-Israel voting bloc in America.
The delegations attracted widespread attention after the Jewish Daily Forward reported on them Monday.
“It’s the first time that the organization that I’m representing received an invitation to such an event,” said Revivi, who is also the mayor of Efrat, a West Bank settlement. “It’s a sign of respect to us for who we represent and what we share.” Revivi will be joined by Benny Kasriel, the mayor of a Jerusalem-area settlement, and Yossi Dagan, the head of the Shomron Regional Council, which governs northern West Bank settlements.
Both delegations have voiced hopes that they will meet with Trump transition officials, though no such event has been confirmed. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
The Israeli settlers to whom VICE News spoke expressed hope that the new administration will further strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance and support those living in the occupied West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War.
“The people that Donald Trump has appointed to deal with American issues with Israel, and the president and vice president, are all people that see positives of the state of Israel and the settlements,” said Glick, a U.S.-born Israeli lawmaker who lives in Otniel, a settlement in the southern West Bank. “They don’t see them as obstacles to peace.”
In an interview with the Times of London, Trump said his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will lead negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Kushner has no diplomatic experience in the region, but his family foundation has donated tens of thousands of dollars to hardline West Bank settlements.
“These efforts are part of an effort to normalize Jewish settler activity, especially among Christian Zionists, and within the mainstream of American politics.”
Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has served for years as the President of American Friends of Bet El, which fundraises for institutions in the settlement of the same name. And Jason Greenblatt, who Trump tapped to be special representative for international negotiations, and who studied at a religious school in a West Bank settlement, has said he does not believe settlements are obstacles to a peace deal.
The invitation for HaYovel, the Christian evangelical group, did not come from Trump’s transition team, unlike the invite to Revivi. But Tommy Waller, the president of HaYovel, insisted that the Trump team “know[s] that we’re here” and “they’re very happy about it.”
“These efforts are part of an effort to normalize Jewish settler activity, especially among Christian Zionists, and within the mainstream of American politics,” said Robert O. Smith, an expert in American Christian theologies concerning the Israeli-Palestinian context.
The people Waller is bringing to the capitol are controversial figures in Israel. Glick is a leader in the movement to establish Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif. It is holy to all three monotheistic religions, and Jews believe it is the site of the temple that the Romans destroyed in 70 CE. But today the area is controlled by Islamic authorities, and Jews are prohibited from praying there; Israeli security officials support this arrangement, in part to maintain order.
In 2014, Glick was shot and seriously injured by a Palestinian man angry with him over his advocacy related to the Temple Mount.
Advocates for Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount have “been struggling for decades to be recognized as a legitimate movement,” said Motti Inbari, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who studies the movement. In Glick, they now have a presence at the inaugural festivities of a U.S. president.
Jeremy Gimpel, another HaYovel delegate, is even more controversial. While running for Knesset in 2013, video emerged of him joking about blowing up the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine located at the Haram al-Sharif.
That kind of anti-Muslim sentiment has found a home within some Christian evangelical supporters of Israel, who believe that God has particularly blessed the country.
“This Christian Zionist imagination [is] that somehow Jews and Christians are destined by God to be in a common struggle against an Islamic enemy,” said Smith, the scholar of Christian Zionism. “Now that the Western world has found itself in constant contact with Islam, that rhetoric has found an easy home in the American populace.”
Despite the warm overtures Trump has made towards Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be attending the ceremony Friday. While there had been rumors of an invitation, leaders of other countries do not normally attend U.S. presidential inaugurations.
Alex Kane is a journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties.