Through eight years of escalating criticism from the world’s most powerful leader, Israeli construction in the sacred hills of Shiloh never stopped.
Thousands of homes were built. Miles of roadway. Restaurants. Shopping malls. A university.
And in Shiloh, a tourist center went up, with a welcome video in which Yehoshua Bin Nun commands the Jewish people to settle the land promised to them by Hashem.
Israeli settlements may be illegal in the eyes of the U.N. Security Council and a major obstacle to Middle East peace in the view of the Obama administration.
But every day they become a more entrenched reality on land that Palestinians say should rightfully belong to them. As the parched beige hilltops fill with red-tiled homes, decades of international efforts to achieve a two-state solution are unraveling.
And global condemnations notwithstanding, the trend is poised to accelerate.
Already, Israel has a right-wing government that boasts it is more supportive of settlement construction than any in the country’s short history. Within weeks, it will also have as an ally a U.S. president, Donald Trump, who has signaled he could make an extraordinary break with decades of U.S. policy and end American objections to the settlements.
The combination has delighted settlers here and across the West Bank who express hope for an unparalleled building boom that would kill off notions of a Palestinian state once and for all.
“If America interferes less, everything will be much easier,” said Shivi Drori, 43, who runs a winery in a Jewish outpost deep in the West Bank that the Israeli government considers officially off-limits to building but has tacitly backed. “I’d like to see bigger settlements. Major cities.”
Trump, Drori predicts, will help make that a reality simply by looking the other way.
“Obama was very confrontational,” Drori said. “The Trump administration seems much more sympathetic.”
Israel’s military conquered the West Bank in a matter of days 50 years ago this June in a war against neighboring Arab states. But settling the land has been the work of generations, accomplished hilltop by hilltop as temporary encampments and caravans have given way to suburban-style homes rooted firmly in the bedrock.
All the while, much of the world has opposed the settlements as an illegal infringement on occupied land. U.S. governments – Democrat and Republican alike – have urged Israel to halt the project and allow negotiations to dictate control of land that Palestinians say is vital to the viability of a future state.
Today, some 400,000 Israelis live in roughly 150 settlements scattered across the West Bank. That’s up from fewer than 300,000 when Barack Obama was elected. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as their future capital.
Unable to halt settlement growth, a frustrated Obama administration lashed out late last month with a twin-barreled diplomatic assault.
First, Washington abstained in a U.N. Security Council vote that demanded Israel end all settlement activity – enabling the resolution’s passage. Days later, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered an impassioned speech accusing Israel of putting the two-state solution “in serious jeopardy” by building “in the middle of what, by any reasonable definition, would be the future Palestinian state.”
Rather than be chastened by the criticism from the nation that has long been its closest ally, Israel’s government was furious. Settlers, meanwhile, brush it off as an irrelevance.
“There’s no implication,” said Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, which represents settlers.
Kerry, Revivi said, is fixated on an idea that, because of decades of Palestinian violence and intransigence, can never become reality – two states for two peoples between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Revivi instead has his eyes fixed on the incoming Trump administration, which has signaled it will abandon U.S. attempts at evenhandedness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and throw its weight squarely behind Israel.
“Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” Trump tweeted before the Kerry speech.
Trump and his advisers “have learned from President Obama’s experience,” Revivi said. “They’re not going to go into a swamp just for the sake of saying they’re in it.”
Revivi, who is also mayor of Efrat, a settlement that is poised to grow from 10,000 to 16,000, has good reason to think so.
Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, New York bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, has expressed positions on the settlements that are further to the right even than those of Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Friedman, for instance, has argued in favor of Israeli annexation of the West Bank, long a fringe position in Israeli politics but one now gaining currency as the political stars align against the two-state solution.
“Everyone who talks about a Palestinian state today knows it will not happen,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party.
Instead, Bennett argues for unilateral Israeli annexation of “Area C” – the 60 percent of West Bank land where Israeli settlements are concentrated. The vast majority of the West Bank’s 2.5 million Palestinians live in Areas A and B, where Bennett says they should be able to have autonomy but not a state.
“We have to say, ‘This is what we want, and this is what we are going to do,’ ” he said. “You can’t go on saying how the world is wrong, this is ours, and then at the end you forget to kick the ball into the net.”
It’s not clear whether Netanyahu will be willing to go as far as his education minister, an ally at times but a fierce rival at others. Netanyahu is still on record supporting a two-state solution, albeit grudgingly.
But the fact that annexation is being discussed at all shows how far Israeli public sentiment has shifted in the settlers’ direction.
On the fast-shrinking left of Israeli politics, such ideas are regarded as a dangerous overreach that threatens Israel’s core democratic and Jewish identities as the Palestinian population grows.
“As a patriotic Israeli, I think it’s in the crucial interest of the state of Israel to get out of the West Bank,” said Talia Sasson, president of the New Israel Fund. “Otherwise we can’t maintain our basic principles.”
Human rights advocates insist those principles have already been trampled by a decades-long policy designed to maximize land for Jewish settlement and make life as difficult as possible for Palestinians.
Adam Aloni, a researcher for the advocacy group B’Tselem, said Israel had already carried out “de facto annexation” in the West Bank by building a network of roads and other barriers that isolate Palestinians in an archipelago of disconnected towns and cities.
“Israel is creating Palestinian ghettos, islands of land that are doomed to failure without basic resources,” he said.
One such island is the poor, litter-strewn village of Salem, where residents say their water supplies have been choked off by adjacent settlements and their access to farmland severely restricted.
“The settlers tell me, ‘You’re not allowed to be here,’ ” said Shareef Shtyah, a 33-year-old shepherd who’s had to cull his herd of sheep from 400 to 15 because the Israelis bar his access to traditional grazing areas. “I tell them, ‘You’re the ones who aren’t allowed to be here.’ ”
The Obama administration may have been sympathetic to Shtyah’s plight. But Palestinians express disappointment that Obama wasn’t able to help them secure many tangible achievements. And they have few illusions that they will get any support from Trump.
“He has the mentality of blindly supporting Israel,” said Ghassan Daghlas, the Palestinian Authority’s point person on settlements in the northern West Bank. “It’s not been a promising start.”
As with so many things, it looks just the opposite to the settlers.
In Shiloh, a settler community of 3,200 a few miles down the road from Salem, residents mark the site of what they believe to be an ancient Jewish capital with a newly constructed archaeology museum and visitors center. Tens of thousands of people visit annually, including tourists from the United States.
Freshly built homes and restaurants dot thriving new neighborhoods catering to Israelis seeking to connect with the biblical lands of their ancestors – or maybe to just get a better quality of life at a cut-rate price.
Even the developments that are not entirely legal by Israeli standards, much less international ones, boast finely paved roads, soaring electricity pylons and reliable water supplies – all courtesy of the Israeli government. And at all times, of course, Israeli soldiers stand guard.
Life here is good, residents say, but it will be even better when Trump takes charge.
“It could have been two or three times as much” development had it not been for pressure from the Obama administration, said Eliana Passentin, who raises her eight children atop a ridge with sweeping views from the river to the sea. “People want to come here and build homes and build companies and build schools. We’ve been restricted in expanding our community. Now we’ll have more freedom.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Griff Witte