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Trump administration could upend decades of U.S. policy on Israel and Palestinians

Beit El settlement in the West Bank
A photograph from October shows part of the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Tax records show the family of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, gave thousands of dollars to this and other settlements.
(AP)

Here in the desert hills of the West Bank, near the Palestinians’ principal city of Ramallah, a group of Orthodox Jews has built the town of Beit El, a place that most of the world considers an illegal settlement constructed on occupied Palestinian land.

For decades, U.S. policy has opposed such settlements as harmful to the peace process. But the Israeli settlers now have some well-placed American supporters.

Funds to help construct Beit El came partly from a U.S.-based foundation run by President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the Kushner family.

And David Friedman, Trump’s long-time real estate lawyer who was named Thursday as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, served as the president of the American Friends of Beit El foundation. His name is on a girls’ school in the settlement in tribute to his support.

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The amounts given by the Kushners were small; $5,000 here, $10,000 there, according to Internal Revenue Service filings.

But they constitute another piece in the puzzle of how the Trump administration will approach one of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts.

There are growing signs that Trump is poised to upend decades of U.S. foreign policy on dealing with Israelis and Palestinians, giving Israel a freer hand to build settlements and relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Several of Trump’s advisers have said they do not regard settlements as illegitimate or obstacles to peace. Unlike President Obama, who pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to temporarily freeze some settlement construction on land seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, Trump appears less likely to pressure Israel to constrain its building.

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“I think it is safe to say that we will see diminished American efforts to promote traditional diplomacy, traditional critique of Israeli settlement activity or the need to resume some peace process with the Palestinians,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.

At the same time, Trump said in an interview with the New York Times that he would “love” to be the president who finally made peace between Israel and the Palestinians; he has said it would be the “ultimate deal.”

Trump even went so far as to say Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, might serve as a special envoy to the Middle East to work on Israeli-Palestinian issues — a prospect many consider preposterous given the younger Kushner’s lack of diplomatic experience and because he would be seen as biased in favor of Israel.

Trump has also said he would move the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something almost no country in the world has done because Jerusalem is disputed. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim it, or part of it, as their capital, and the U.S. position for decades has been that its status must be resolved through negotiations.

Past U.S. presidents made similar pledges about relocating the U.S. embassy. But upon taking office, all concluded such a step would not only provoke Palestinians, but also unsettle Arab allies throughout the region.

After his appointment was announced, Friedman stated he looked forward to forging the U.S. bond with Israel “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

Friedman also has voiced opposition to the so-called two-state solution, the existence of an Israeli and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace, which has been the basis of U.S. policy since the 1950s and the framework for peace negotiations in that part of the world. At a Jerusalem election rally shortly before the U.S. election, he vowed that a Trump administration would never pressure Israel to accept a Palestinian state.

Such assertions explain why several U.S. Jewish groups reacted negatively to Friedman’s selection. Friedman’s positions on the two-state solution “foreclose on the possibility of advancing,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in an interview.

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By abandoning the two-state solution, “they’re saying they are not bound by the last 25 years” of history, said Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal think tank that focuses on Israel.

Dennis Ross, veteran diplomat who served as Middle East envoy in Republican and Democratic administrations, cautioned that Trump will not be able to write off the Palestinians altogether if a real resolution is to come about.

“The first thing is you have to restore a sense of possibility,” Ross said. “There is no sense of possibility on either side now.”

Violence between Israelis and Palestinians has diminished since the end of the last major uprising more than a decade ago. But both sides worry that any major shifts in the status quo, such as the relocation of the U.S. embassy, a marked increase in settlement construction or a move by Israel to annex West Bank territory, could trigger renewed Palestinian protests or terror attacks.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned Trump against upsetting the fragile status quo, which was achieved through previous rounds of negotiations. “These are issues agreed to in an American-sponsored, international-sponsored peace process … and no one should take any decisions which may preempt or prejudge, because this will be the destruction of the peace process as a whole.”

Successive Israeli governments, and especially that of the hawkish Netanyahu, have allowed a vast network of settlements to develop throughout the West Bank and in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem. More than half a million Jewish Israelis now live in settlements, according to Israeli government figures.

Few issues anger Palestinians more than settlements, which they see as crisscrossing the land they claim as their state and making territorial continuity of their future state impossible.

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Past U.S. presidents — both Republican and Democratic — have criticized settlement expansion, with especially pointed words coming recently from Obama, who famously does not get along with Netanyahu, in part because of the landmark deal to curtail Iran’s pursuit of nuclear armament. Netanyahu argues that Iran cannot be trusted and poses a major threat to Israel.

Despite the criticism, the United States in September agreed to a $38-billion, 10-year package of military assistance to Israel, the largest single pledge of security aid in U.S. history. 

Israeli settlers are hoping to make inroads during the Trump administration. At Beit El, Baruch Gordon, a fundraiser for the settlement, described Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, as a “very good friend” of the settlement and one of its top supporters. “Charlie and his wife are wonderful people,’' he said. He said he had not met Jared.

On a recent Friday before Shabbat, yeshiva students poured over religious texts inside a brand new study hall, a beit midrash. It and its small campus were erected with contributions from the U.S. foundation, American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva Center, which lists the Charles Kushner as a founding trustee of its annual fundraising gala. 

Through its own U.S. charity, Beit El is one of several Jewish settlements that has received money from the Kushner Foundation in recent years, according to IRS filings.

Another is the hard-line Yitzhar settlement, deep in the West Bank near the city of Nablus. Students at the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva in Yitzhar have been accused of vigilante attacks on nearby Palestinian villages — as well as against Israeli troops.

Another recipient is the more well-established, suburban-style Efrat settlement, south of Jerusalem, which is popular with American Jewish emigres.

Netanyahu told CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes” earlier this month that he was confident Trump would be a good friend of Israel.

“I know Donald Trump,” Netanyahu said. “I know him very well.  And I think his attitude, his support for Israel is clear. He feels very warmly about the Jewish state, about the Jewish people and about Jewish people.” 

Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, an organization of settler leaders, said he held a round of meetings in the U.S. after the election with members of the Trump transition team and supporters such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

“The reactions that I got from people were very promising and show a shift in the direction of which way the wind is blowing,’’ he said. Revivi, a resident of the settlement of Efrat, said he’s certain “there will be a different approach.’’

Wilkinson reported from Washington, Mitnick from Beit El, West Bank.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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