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Pompeo makes unprecedented visit to West Bank settlement as Israelis prepare to confront Biden

A Palestinian shepherd herds her flock Sunday at Givat Hamatos settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

JERUSALEM — After four years of a sympathetic Trump administration, Israeli settlers are sobering up to a new reality and digging in for a fight ahead of a new U.S. president expected to revive traditional criticisms of their enterprise.

Settler leaders across the West Bank and East Jerusalem predict a return to the old cat-and-mouse game in which they push to expand their communities until the White House pushes back.

“It’s a constant dance,” said Sara Haetzni-Cohen, head of a settlement support group, describing the pre-Trump routine of building houses in the occupied territories, waiting for the inevitable condemnations from the United States and other nations and then pausing until tensions abate.

President Trump had changed the dynamic, declaring settlements to be legal despite international objections and endorsing their eventual annexation by Israel.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used what may be his last official visit to Israel to highlight Trump’s changes and add to them. Pompeo announced that the State Department would now regard the anti-occupation campaign known as boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, as anti-Semitic and would deny government funding to groups that participate in it. Supporters of the campaign say they are protesting Israeli policy in the West Bank, including the presence of settlements.

Pompeo sets off debate over boycott of Israel

Pompeo also issued new State Department guidelines that settlement-made goods exported to the United States be marked “Product of Israel.” The European Union has imposed the opposite requirement, mandating that settlement goods be marked as coming from the occupied territories.

During a helicopter tour, Pompeo stopped for lunch at an Israeli winery in the West Bank, making him the first secretary of state to visit a Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. He then became the first secretary of state to visit the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed.

The rush of Israeli settlement development that will confront the incoming Biden administration began earlier in the week when Israel announced plans to build 1,257 homes in Givat Hamatos, a community on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The long-delayed project is considered especially controversial because it could separate adjacent Palestinian communities and make it more difficult to ultimately share Jerusalem between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

After holding off for most of Trump’s term, Israel announced the construction plans a week after his election defeat became clear. The government gave companies a deadline of Jan. 18 to bid on the work, two days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

The provocative timing — which recalled a 2010 incident in which another settlement construction announcement roiled a visit to Israel by then-Vice President Biden — delighted setters who are ready to resume a more bellicose stance toward Washington.

“Just as we did during the Obama days, we’ll deal with the Harris and Biden days,” said Arieh King, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a veteran far-right activist.

King, who lives in an East Jerusalem settlement, was in Givat Hamatos on Monday to protest a delegation of European diplomats objecting to the construction plans.

“Go home, anti-Semites!” King and others shouted as European Union representative Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff struggled to hold a news conference condemning the planned expansion.

Palestinians have been infuriated by Israel’s plan to proceed, with a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas equating it to a late-innings “takeover of more Palestinian lands.”

Israeli peace activists also lamented this confrontational approach.

“As much as [settlers] like to scream and kick about the return of a Democratic president and how much [Barack] Obama hated Israel, it seems like they are quite comfortable with that status quo,” said Brian Reeves, a spokesman for Peace Now.

Over successive U.S. administrations — Democratic and Republican — the settlements have continued to balloon. There are now 600,000 residents in more than 240 cities, towns and outposts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Opponents of the settlements have been heartened by statements and position papers issued by the Biden campaign suggesting he will oppose settlement expansions. He could reverse some of Trump’s executive actions, such as holding that settlements are not inherently illegal and lifting restrictions on American funding for settlement research institutions.

But some of Trump’s legacy could endure. By moving the prospect of annexation from the ideological fringes to the center of debate, for instance, Trump has legitimized and emboldened the settlement movement.

“He managed to escalate their agenda by removing all restraints on it,” Reeves said.

Israeli politicians across much of the spectrum have been circumspect in their reactions to Biden’s victory. They expect him to reinstate the traditional U.S. policy that deems settlements an obstacle to peace, but also see him as a longtime friend they can work with. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made his first courtesy phone call to Biden on Tuesday, has reassured Israelis that his “old friend” won’t be the end of their warm relations with Washington.

Settlers know that Biden will be no Trump when it comes to their issues, but many take comfort that he may not be Obama either, a president they viewed as unremittingly hostile. “Biden comes with a worldview of uniting; he’s a compromiser,” said David Elhayani, the head of the Yesha Council, an umbrella for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Still, Netanyahu’s allies have been clear that now is the time to take final advantage of the outgoing administration’s sympathy for settlers.

Netanyahu reportedly raised the possibility of building thousands of houses in the Atarot neighborhood of East Jerusalem at his meeting with Pompeo on Thursday.

“These days are an irreversible opportunity to establish our hold on the land of Israel, and I’m sure that our friend President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be wise enough to take advantage of them in the best way,” said Miki Zohar, a Knesset member from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, in a tweet hailing the Givat Hamatos announcement.

Pompeo, who along with Ambassador David Friedman has been at the center of the administration’s pro-settlement tilt, arrived Wednesday in Israel for the valedictory tour.

Palestinians on Wednesday protested Pompeo’s tour, holding a news conference with members of the Arab families they said were the legal owners of the hilly land occupied by Psagot Winery, the facility Pompeo visited Thursday.

Settlers, by contrast, lined up to express their gratitude. “Thank you in the name of the people of Israel,” read a sign near the winery entrance.

“You can’t argue with the way that Trump and his secretary of state have had proven results,” said Yaakov Berg, the owner of Psagot Winery. “He changed the concept to show that we are not thieves. We have, at the end of the day, only come back to our home country.”

Berg was at the center of an unsuccessful court challenge to the European labeling requirements. It was a week after the petitioners lost that case that Pompeo announced that the administration no longer viewed the settlements as illegal. Psagot now offers a 2018 cabernet sauvignon named “Pompeo.”

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