EFRAT — Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee laid bricks in a new neighborhood in this community’s Tamar neighborhood last week.
During a ceremony reflecting President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric, organizers distributed red caps with the slogan “Build Israel Great Again” and spoke of their gratitude for the president’s support. Leaders of the Yesha Council, which represents the movement to build Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, indicated that the ceremony was part of an effort to garner American support for expanding the Jewish footprint in what some in the West refer to as occupied territories.
“I cannot tell you how proud I’ve been of the president as it relates to the land of Israel,” said Huckabee, a Trump supporter, talk show host and ordained minister.
Speaking against a backdrop of “Build Israel Great Again” signs, settlement leaders took turns praising Trump and calling on him to lift limits on settlement construction.
“We appreciate the American administration that appreciates the importance of us living here and the connection of the Jewish people to their homeland,” said Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi, and Yesha’s foreign envoy. Asking Huckabee to convey to the president what life is like in his city, Revivi said he hoped the White House would realize the importance of settlement building.
While Trump initially declared settlement expansion “unhelpful,” he subsequently changed his tune, declining to condemn Israel’s approval of more than 2,000 settlement homes. According to Peace Now, Israel has approved plans for nearly 14,000 units since the 2016 election, a significant increase over the 4,476 units approved in the year-and-a-half before Trump’s victory.
Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman paid a shiva call to the family of a terror victim in the Adam settlement. In prior administrations, officials generally refrained from visiting areas over the pre-1967 lines, such as eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Huckabee’s and Friedman’s visits constituted a message that “we should separate between the positive and negative vectors in this area,” said Yesha Council Chairman Hananel Dorani, meaning, respectively, the 435,000 Israelis and 2.75 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.
Dorani described the Palestinians as a violent people who “believe in terror and educate to hate.” He said that lasting peace will only come when millions of Jews have settled in the West Bank and Palestinians realize that they have “no choice but to live side by side.”
Yesha Council CEO Yigal Dilmoni was enthusiastic about the future, saying settlers felt like there was “a new spirit in the period of Trump” and that the U.S. and Israel together could build up Judea and Samaria.
Settlement leaders discounted the possibility that their embrace of Trump-style rhetoric could make settlements even more of a partisan issue. Polls show a majority of Republican voters support expansion, while most Democrats oppose it.
“You can see the attitude of our PM, which [is] the same,” said Dorani, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump “truly loves Israel, and we think it’s an opportunity for us to get the process forward.”
New York physician Joseph Frager, a vice president of the National Council of Young Israel and an organizer of Wednesday’s event, approved the Trumpian rhetoric, saying it “helped the president in the United States get elected.”
“Judea and Samaria have to grow,” Frager said. “The president, I think, likes to see demonstrations of that fact. I think this catches his eye and his interest, and it could be helpful.”
Israeli politicians and American Orthodox Jewish leaders have thanked Trump. At a reception celebrating the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, Orthodox Union President Mark Bane described Trump as “G-d’s messenger,” while Israel’s justice minister Ayelet Shaked called him “Churchill of the 21st century.”
At the time, Dan Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, said it was understandable that Israelis and American Jews were engaging in “hyperbole” because “it’s become accepted in international circles that the way to gain favor with President Trump is to engage in excessive flattery.”
“The settlers are euphoric about Trump’s victory,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now. “Together with Netanyahu, they feel they can do whatever they want in settlements. Netanyahu is seizing the opportunity of the carte blanche he got from Trump to set facts on the ground in order to prevent the possibility of a two-state solution. This is bad news for anyone who cares about Israel and wants to see it living in peace and prosperity side by side with its neighbors.”
In one of Obama’s last actions as president, the administration abstained on a U.N. Security Council resolution to declare Israel’s settlements illegal and demand the building stop. When the parties to the peace process seemed committed to restarting it a year ago, Trump cautioned Israel against settlement expansion, saying it could frustrate the process.
Now that the process is dead, Trump and his administration barely mention settlement — a break from the Obama administration, which spoke out against any announced building.
While happy without Obama-era censure, Dorani said settlement leaders still feel stifled.
“During eight years of Obama we couldn’t build like we wanted, and now under Trump we are building but not enough,” the Yesha CEO said, asking Huckabee to intervene with the president. “There are still limits. We can’t build new settlements or big neighborhoods.”