Yehudah and Shomron Leaders Invited to Inauguration

YERUSHALAYIM (AP) -
FILE – People walk past signs bearing the name of President-elect Republican Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, November 14. (Baz Ratner/Reuters/File Photo)

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 Yehudah and Shomron communities. “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 fast-growing Efrat city 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.

Today, there are some 400,000 Israelis living in Yehudah and Shomron communities, in addition to roughly 200,000 Israelis in east Yerushalayim, 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 Yerushalayim, 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. 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.”

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.