At first glance, it is hard to see how a sleepy neighbourhood draped across the crest of a hill deep in the occupied West Bank could offer any insight into US policy on Israel. Or the seemingly watertight relationship between the administrations of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the story of Trump, his closest advisers in the Middle East, and what is arguably the most dramatic change in direction of US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades, is inextricably intertwined with Beit El, one of Israel’s most radical settlements.
In the town, which overlooks the Palestinian administrative capital of Ramallah and is home to some 7,000 Israelis. David Friedman, Trump’s chosen US ambassador to Israel, once headed an American fundraising organisation that has pumped millions of dollars into the settlement.
John Bolton, Trump’s recently dismissed national security adviser, has given a key-note speech at a fundraising event for it.
The parents of Jared Kushner, the US president’s son-in-law, who is due to deliver his peace plan for the region in the coming months, have also donated many thousands to institutions that support the settlement.
The president himself, it was revealed in 2016, donated $10,000 Beit El in 2003, in honour of Friedman, his then bankruptcy lawyer.
And it is the unique relationship Trump’s cadres have with this settlement that is a keyhole to the overhaul in the US administration’s attitudes towards Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories as a whole.
Supporters and critics of Netanyahu alike, along with people in Washington, agree this change has emboldened the Israeli prime minister and allowed him to take, in some cases, unprecedented expansionist steps in the Palestinian territories.
Days before the Israeli general election on Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu made an explosive announcement that he would annex the Jordan Valley and north Dead Sea area in the occupied West Bank immediately after being re-elected.
While not the first time he has mentioned annexation, he set a time frame, provided a detailed map of what would be carved up and hinted that Mr Trump would support the move, despite it being illegal under international law and sure to fan the flames of conflict in the region.
Peace Now, an Israeli rights group, then reported that there has been a massive surge in settlement construction, which is illegal under international law, since Trump came to power, with a 60 per cent increase in approvals for settlement units in East Jerusalem during the first two years of his presidency. Another Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, meanwhile said that this year had seen the highest number of demolitions of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem for 15 years.
Certainly, in the leafy streets of Beit El, where many buildings are emblazoned with plaques dedicated to Friedman, leading members of the settlement’s community told The Independent they felt settlers were enjoying “unprecedented” support from a US administration.
“It is clear David Friedman, Jared Kushner and [former Middle East envoy] Jason Greenblatt have a different ideological background to Barack Obama, which is refreshing to us,” says Chaim Silberstein, who was born in South Africa and is now a member of the local council.
He cites moves by Trump including declaring the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1960s, as well as closing the office of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Washington and slashing aid to the Palestinian territories.
“All are unprecedented and important actions that show sincere fairness in my opinion and love for our country,” he adds.
Former ambassadors to Israel, meanwhile, speak of how this shift has profoundly impacted the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Trump’s Middle East team is due to deliver a peace plan, spearheaded by his son-in-law, after the Israeli elections.
“This administration’s policy is now to support everything Israel wants,” says David C Kurtzer, who served as an ambassador under Bill Clinton. He said that was the “fundamental change” in bilateral relations between the two countries.
“The real difference is where the US has effectively taken itself out of the game as a third-party mediator” in the conflict, he adds.
James B Cunningham, who was US ambassador to Israel between 2008 and 2011, mostly agrees.
“Israelis will dictate the terms of what peace looks like," he tells The Independent from Washington.
Meanwhile he adds that the state of relations between the US and the Palestinians is “the worst in the modern age”.
Back in Beit El, the name of Trump’s chosen ambassador is well known and loved, as are the Kushners.
Friedman’s name and that of his late father are enshrined on panels across a fitness centre, a centre for computer science and a girls’ school building, which according to Israeli anti-settlement watchdogs is built on private Palestinian land without permission from its Palestinian landowners.
The residents gush with excitement when the conversation turns to the former attorney turned diplomat.
“David Friedman came to visit with his family before he was ambassador. They were very good, beautiful people, they care about others,” says Nina Manne, who owns Beit El’s sole vineyard, which produces 20,000 bottles of kosher wine a year that almost exclusively is sold to the US.
She says the reason that Friedman and other members of the Jewish community across the world are so drawn to Beit El is because of the religious significance of the place.
It is the alleged site where Biblical patriarch Jacob had a dream in which God promised him the land around him.
“It’s the same reason I came to live here 25 years ago,” she adds.
Silberstein says that part of its popularity has also been driven by the savvy fundraising of Yaakov Katz, the powerful founder of the settlement who in 2016 revealed to local media that Trump and the Kushners were among the star-studded donors to the settlement’s educational programmes. Katz, a former member of parliament, also said he and Friedman go back decades and are “like brothers”.
“It is a combination of its authentic place in history and the unbelievable competence and success of Yaakov Katz that put Beit El on the world map,” Silberstein adds.
“Successful lawyers like David Friedman like to back a winning horse.”
The settlement was founded in 1977 on Palestinian land originally seized to build an Israeli military outpost.
It has gained major prominence over the years largely due to its yeshiva or religious school, which is run by Rabbi Zalman Melamed, who famously in 2005 urged Israeli soldiers to reject orders to evacuate Israeli settlements in Gaza.
The American fundraising organisation Friedman once headed supports institutions inside the settlement including the yeshiva, various secondary school educational programmes and an online news site Arutz Sheva, that Friedman has written for.
One of the yeshiva’s programmes in the past trained Jewish students on American campuses in advocating against a two-state solution, which has been the accepted peace policy for US administrations for decades.
Friedman himself funded the construction of a building which according to Israeli settlement researchers is not only illegal under international law but Israel’s own legislation as it is built on private Palestinian land.
Dror Etkes, an Israeli expert on settlement construction, told The Independent that there is even a 2002 Israeli demolition order out against the building, known as the “Friedman Faculty House”.
The girls’ school block, which has not been demolished, still has a placard on it commemorating Friedman’s donation and his family.
Etkes calls Beit El “one of the most aggressive and problematic settlements in terms of position” because it is built right next to Ramallah and Bireh, key administrative towns for the Palestinians.
“It is the symbol of the Israeli attempt to dissect the West Bank with settlements” he continues.
“And so, it is an example of how the Trump administration is aligned with the most politically extreme groups in Israeli politics today,” he adds.
Beyond Beit El, it is clear that Trump’s advisers, including Friedman and Kushner, have successfully altered the US’s chosen position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so the reality on the ground.
Back in Washington, former ambassador Cunningham says it has changed so much there is “no hope” for the long-awaited plan due to drop after the Israeli elections on Tuesday.
He cites concerns such as the fact that “settlement expansion is no longer an issue” and that terms like a “two-state solution” to the crisis have been all but dropped.
Kurtzer also speaks about the worrying erosion of terms.
“Friedman has been instrumental in the change of language. [The Trump administration] don’t use the word ‘occupation’, they don’t use the word ‘two-state solution’. Friedman has said he doesn’t call them settlements, they are communities and neighbourhoods."
Kurtzer also said another indicator was the recent appointment of a 30-year-old law graduate with no experience in the region or foreign policy as the US’s Middle East envoy to manage the upcoming peace plan.
Avi Berkowitz, who was described in 2017 by Hope Hicks, the White House’s then head of communications, as Kushner’s coffee boy, is replacing Jason Greenblatt, who has resigned.
“I have compared this process to a magic show where the illusionist tells you, ‘Keep your eye on your left hand while the action is actually going on with your right,’” Kurtzer concludes about the Trump administration’s outlook.
“They are telling us to keep our eyes on the plan, but the action is on the ground like moving the embassy to Jerusalem, cutting off communications with the Palestinians… that is the goal. The whole process is a farce.”
Additional reporting by Quique Kierszenbaum
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