Politicised Tourism: What You Need to Know Before You Book a Tour to the Holy Land

Mourning at Jesus' grave

 

Mourning at Jesus' grave

Mourning at “Jesus’ grave”, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem). Picture by Laurien Vastenhout

By Laurien Vastenhout -

 

 

The last time I visited Israel, and in particular the various religious sites throughout the country, I was once again struck by the vast number of organised group tours. Groups of people, singing religious songs, publicly reading from the Bible while sailing in small boats on the sea of Galilea – an area where Jesus is said to have spent a significant period of his life – are by no means an exception. Tourists who are exploring the country individually, either by car or public transport, have become a minority. Christians from all over the world organise themselves and follow a carefully planned out 10-day journey through the country, visiting the places referred to in the Bible.* Interestingly, the practical organisation of these kind of tours are in the hands of locals and the choice of sites depends on whether the group decides to take a Christian Zionist tour or a tour in support of Palestinian Christians. This article will outline the difference between these tours and argue that, 1) despite the seeming innocent nature of ‘Holy Land tourism’, organised tours are in fact highly politicised and, 2) that the confrontation between the tour guide and his/her Christian ‘clients’, although an interesting inter-religious encounter at first sight, also raises problems.**

 

One should realise that to many pilgrims, a visit to Israel is not the same as a summer holiday to Greece. The majority of Christians visit the Holy Land of Israel / Palestine as part of the experience and education of the Christian self. Christians cannot get closer to the ‘reality’ of the holy Bible than when they set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, where supposedly Jesus was crucified, or when they walk on the Via Dolorosa where Jesus is said to have carried the cross to the place of execution at Golgotha.*** Sitting on the rooftop terrace at the “Austrian hospice” in the center of the Old City, I was able to closely watch how people in groups of 20-30 walked the same path Jesus had done before he was crucified (see video below). These walks on the Via Dolorosa, with people alternately carrying the cross of Jesus – in doing so ‘reliving’ a fraction of his experience – are carefully organised. Every ten minutes a new group begins with this ‘last trail of Jesus’, halting at various stations of importance (14 in total). Every thirty minutes, Israeli buses bring these crosses back to the ‘starting point’ again, after which a whole new set of groups can commence with the same ritual. 

 

As said, the choice of tour through the land entirely predetermines the perspective these Christian groups get of the country. When you decide to participate in the Zionist Christian tour, the group visits the typically Jewish sites of Jerusalem and the country. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Christian tour centralises the Palestinian perspective and largely ignores the Jewish/Israeli element. The difference is highlighted in the make-up of the brochures. Whereas the former often shows the Western Wall in the Old City and emphasises the search for the Jewish roots of Christianity during the tour, the latter shows the Dome of the Rock (see previous article) and emphasises the Christian presence in the city, showing churches rather than paying attention to the Jewish history of the city. A closer analysis of two crucial days of the program of these two tours also shows a significant difference. Whereas the Christian Zionist tour visits the particular Jewish sites in the Holy City, passes Bethlehem (a Palestinian village and ‘birthplace’ of Jesus) and drives directly to Hebron – one of the major settlements in the West Bank – to have a festive evening with the local Jews there, the latter tour actually visits Bethlehem. Also, the choice to show the separation wall at its most problematic point (between two Palestinian villages that are entirely disrupted as a result of the wall) in the latter day-tour is telling. As a result, the tours become highly politicised. The choice of places to visit by these tour operators is crucial to the understanding and perspective of the Christian visitors on the history of the land. Also, their understanding of the nature and continuity of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is moulded. This is by no means a shock or surprise to the people attending the tour – they consciously choose one of the options with a reason, and are simply strengthened in their religious beliefs throughout their visit. Consequently, their political convictions are played upon as well. 

 

The inter-religious encounters between Jewish/Israeli immigrant guides and Christian pilgrims can become an additional complex and problematic factor. The personal story of Jackie Feldman, who worked for years as a tour-guide (for which a successful completion of a two-year course is obligatory) in Israel, is telling. Feldman was a recent American immigrant in Israel and by the time he started working as a guide, he had been disappointed with his arrival in his ‘homeland’ Israel. Raised in a traditional Jewish family in New York, he believed living in Israel would feel as ‘coming home’. By contrast, he was treated as any other immigrant and the difficult bureaucratic procedures made him feel less welcome than he had anticipated. However, during the tours, in which he mainly guided American Christians, he was the representative – or ‘ambassador’ – of Israeli Jews. Through these encounters, he felt more Jewish-Israeli than ever. As more than half of the tour guides are (recent) immigrants to Israel, the interactions with the Christian tourist groups can reaffirm and even strengthen their particular identity as Jewish inhabitant of Israel, while they in reality still struggle to find a place in Israeli society. In short, these interactions inform who they are and alter their identity. Many of the tour guides have come from countries where Jews are only a minority group, opposed to the majority group of Catholics/Christians who are now visiting and guided through ‘their’ land.

 

The resulting constellation of power is seemingly harmless. There is a spirit of harmony and softening between the Jewish tour guides and the Zionist Christians who, as turns out during the 10-day tour, share a similar background. Their religions are more closely connected than anticipated. At the same time, a shared claim against Muslims/Palestinians (in cases of antagonism, often referred to as being one) starts to unfold during this process. In fact, during these Christian Zionist tours, the Palestinian story is ignored through the particular choice of sites and the strong connection between the Jewish guide and Christian pilgrims. A Jewish/Christian commonality comes into existence and is created at the cost of the Palestinians. The same is done the other way around, where tours emphasise the Palestine side of the story. This creates a problematic situation in which the antagonisms between the two groups increases. Of course, the picture is not entirely black and white. There are tours aiming to show both sides of the Old city, paying attention to both the Jewish and Muslim historical roots to the land. As a result, these tours also pay attention to the many nuances of the current conflict. However, the number of these type of tours are small. My recent visit to the country and its many religious sites confronted me more than ever with the politicisation that is inherent to the organised group tours. Although innocent on the surface, ‘Holy Land tourism’ in this form therefore only increases the already immensely complicated situation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. 

 

* Mostly, these tours have a duration of 8-15 days.

** This article is based on personal interactions when visiting Israel at various periods of time over the past years as well as the work of Jackie Feldman and his lecture at Spui 25 on October, 12 2017.

*** It should be noted that research has proven that, historically seen, Jesus can never have been buried at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also, it is impossible that Jesus walked on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ as it is currently constructed. This also counts for the sites on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ pilgrims are nowadays worshipping.

 

Video by Laurien Vastenhout

A Papal Apology: the cultural context of a public apology

From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1
From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1, Provincial Archives of Alberta

Students at Blue Quills Residential School, Alberta, Canada, 1940. From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1, Provincial Archives of Alberta

 

By Marieke Zoodsma –

 

Not only President Trump took the opportunity of the G7 summit in Italy to meet the highest leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, also met with the pontiff in the Vatican last week where they, according to the Vatican Press Office, talked about themes of integration and reconciliation. That the pope and the Canadian PM discuss such topics during a meeting is not coincidental: the Catholic Church played an important role in the Canadian residential school system that abused indigenous children for over a century. The legacy of this residential school system is one of the major obstacles for reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous communities. Thus, as part of moving forward in the reconciliation process, Trudeau came to Vatican to ask for one thing: an official apology from the Catholic Church.

 

The Canadian residential schools were part of the Indian Act, set up by the Canadian government in the 1880s, and mandated education for indigenous children. This education would take place in boarding schools, away from the children’s homes, and would subject them to forced conversion and abuse. The system was based on the assumption that indigenous spirituality and communities were inferior and unequal, captured in the infamous phrase “to kill the Indian in the child” – a policy that has been argued to constitute cultural genocide. The last residential school closed in 1996.

 

These schools were often set up in partnership with the Church. In the 1930s, some 80 residential schools were operating across the country, of which 44 were run by Roman Catholics, 21 by the Church of England (now the Anglican Church of Canada), 13 by the United Church of Canada, and 2 by Presbyterians. The crucial role of the Church in this schooling system has been thoroughly examined by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where one of the most important outcomes was that a formal papal apology is necessary for genuine reconciliation to move forward (TRC Report – Call to Action paragraph 58). Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized in name of the Canadian government in 2008. From the 1990s onwards, the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches have issued, through a moderate who spoke for the whole Church, a formal apology. One article on the matter of the papal apology read: “Formal apologies have also been made by the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches, which also ran some of the schools. The previous pontiff, Pope Benedict, met with survivor of the system Phil Fontaine in 2009, but did not formally apologize. Instead, he shared his ‘sorrow’ and ‘sympathy’.”

 

This is where the interesting twist lies: what does it exactly mean to formally, officially and publicly apologize? Are there certain rules that it should abide by, and are these universally accepted? Many scholars argue that a ‘correct’ apology should consist of several factors: an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, the acceptance of responsibility, an expression of remorse, the promise of non-repetition, and the apology needs to be sincere. However, this assumes a check-list approach to political apologies – an approach that can be seen to decontextualize the phenomenon. An apology is a social performance that is aimed to restore a temporarily broken relationship – in the case of political apologies that between the perpetrator state and the victims –, a relationship that is broken through the violation of a shared moral code. This shared moral code (the norms and values of a culture), the social relationship (intergroup contact) that is violated, and the social performance (an apology) are all culturally and situationally grounded concepts. In other words: whether or not an apology can be – or is – successful, depends on the cultural context. Is it even possible for a head of state to sincerely apologize, and what form does this take within different communities? What is the framing of the apology; who is the spokesperson (actor), what is the setting (stage), what are the exact words used (content)?

 

It is intriguing that one of the most powerful and famous apologies that has been offered in our so-called age of apology does not contain any words: the genuflection of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970. The Kniefall of the German chancellor at the memorial for the Jewish Uprising in Warsaw was the first symbolic public representation of German guilt and opened the way for new forms of collective remembrance. It was a gestural social performance that expressed a feeling of remorse, repentance, and acknowledged Germany’s past as a perpetrator. Our guest writer Renate Vink argued in her article: “… what the Warschauer Kniefall teaches is that we cannot simply dismiss the value and potential of such gestures or apologies by merely looking at our current (political) circumstances”. To understand the salient impact of the Kniefall, the cultural meaning attributed to this non-verbal performance needs to be taken into account. Such a gesture might not work in a different situation, with different actors, and in a different culture.

 

The report of the TRC reads: “An official apology constitutes a public admission that acceptable societal norms and values have been violated and that, as a result, civic trust has been broken.” An acknowledgment of past suffering by the highest leader of the Catholic church can be an important driving force for reconciliation on a social and cultural level – once offered to meet the criteria of the Indigenous culture. It is therefore that Trudeau specifically asked the pope to come to Canada to offer his apology in name of the church. Indigenous people document their histories through oral-based tradition, including the official recording of apologies made in order to rectify suffering. If the Vatican is honest and willing to transform its relationship with Canada’s indigenous people and to come to terms with the dark pages of its past, the church must understand and respect the Indigenous people’s own concepts of reconciliation.

 

Longing for a Lost Ideal: The Historic Struggle for Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

Dome of the Rock

 

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock, April 2017. Picture by Laurien Vastenhout

 

By Laurien Vastenhout

 

During last month’s Pesach, tensions raised in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Religious Jews had sacrificed a lamb close to the Temple Mount, an area administered by a Muslim religious trust. A few weeks before, the Israeli High Court had upheld the police decision to block a Passover reenactment on the archeological site close to the Temple Mount. Instead, the group was allowed to have the ceremony at the heart of the Jewish Quarter, outside the Hurva Synagogue, only a few hundred meters way from the Temple Mount. Despite some setbacks– the electricity went out for more than two hours, no famous rabbis attended, and the priests ‘ran out’ of blood from the lamb even before they reached the specially prepared vessels – the activists still rejoiced. This was the first time the reenactment had taken place so close to the Temple Mount. At the end of the same month during Yom HaShoah. Jewish Temple Mount activists hung a protest placard at the entrance to the Temple Mount, protesting against its closure to Jews on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This article examines why the Temple Mount continues to be a recurring source for controversy and struggle, both to Jews and Muslims.

 

Wandering around the area of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, one can find Jews who are collecting money for ‘the reconstruction of the Temple’. After they have donated money, tourists receive a small red bracelet in return. However, it seems as if many of these tourists do now know that a reconstruction of the Temple unequivocally means that the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine with its characteristic golden cupola, has to be removed first. The Dome of the Rock dates from the 7th century when Caliph Abd al-Malik erected the glorious octagonal building (by then not yet capped by the golden dome). The building is said to house the rock on which Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice. Also, this was the place where the prophet Mohammed rose from the earth on a winged steed to meet Abraham, Moses and Jesus in heaven. The rock, as the story goes, wanted to follow, but as Mohammed pushed it back to earth, he left a footprint on it which is still to be seen today.

 

The construction of the Islamic shrine followed centuries of power struggles within the city between, amongst others, Christians, Romans, Jews and Ottoman Muslims. On the exact same place, Herod’s Temple had been standing centuries before, which in turn had replaced the First Temple, Salomon’s Temple. Salomon’s Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. In 70 C.E. Herod’s ‘second’ Temple*, by then the largest and most awe-inspiring religious monument in the world – glittering with gold and shining white stone –, was destroyed by Titus, the Roman Supreme Military Commander. After two destructions, the Temple would never be resurrected again. To Jews, similar to Muslims, the site is a Holy place. Inside the first Temple, in Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was located, constructed during the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinaï desert and an important symbol of the Jewish faith. The Ark symbolises the only physical manifestation of God on earth as its construction had been commanded by God to Moses. Although the contents of the Ark have been debated, there is a general consensus that it contained the tablets with the Ten Commandments. To Jews, the Temple is therefore much more than just a building. As a result, the last destruction in 70 C.E. has incited an unprecedented sense of longing and feeling of religious loss.

 

The destruction of the last Temple has become a symbol of human search for a lost ideal. The rituals that have taken place at this site are recorded in an extraordinary level of detail and show the religious importance and centrality of the site. No wonder that the capture of Jerusalem during the Six-Day-War in 1967 and the subsequent capture of the Temple Mount by the Israelis aroused feelings of excitement. Up until then, the site had been ‘lost’ to the Jews. At the end of this war, Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan proclaimed that the Israeli government wanted to preserve religious freedom for all faiths in Jerusalem, handing over administrative control of the Temple Mount compound to the Jordanian Waqf – a Jordanian appointed Islamic body – while the overall security of the area was maintained by Israel. Jews could visit the Temple Mount, but were not allowed to have religious services at the site as this is now considered a prayer site for Muslims. This is still the reality today. It should be noted here that Orthodox Jews are not allowed enter the site until the Messias comes **. This is why the Rabbi has forbidden them to enter the site, as a sign at the entrance to the Mount indicates. This clearly illustrates the different ways in which the Temple Mount is approached by various Jewish groups in Israeli society.

 

Throughout history, the site has incited actions that experts refer to as ‘the Jerusalem Syndrom’ – a religious madness which comes to a head in the shadow of the Temple Mount. In 1969, a non-Jewish Australian tourist set fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, situated on the Temple Mount, claiming he was ‘the Lord’s Missionary’. In 1982, an Israeli soldier went on a shooting rampage in the Al-Aqsa mosque because he hoped to become King of the Jews by liberating the spot. The recent actions can be seen in this light as well – extremist groups try to enlarge their authority on the site and feel it is their right to use the site as a place of religious enactment and remembrance. Despite, or because of, their perseverance, rules at the Temple Mount are strict and seem to have become even stricter over the past years – one is not allowed to bring any religious objects to the site, nor to pray on the Temple Mount.

 

The longing for the lost Temple has resulted in the establishment of Talmud Schools, where scholars are being trained in the rituals of priesthood in case a new Temple is built. Some Rabbis also claim they know the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant which was located in the First Temple until its destruction. Although organisations such as the “Jerusalem Temple Foundation” or “the Temple Institute” have been in a constant battle with the state of Israel, the recent acquittal of the youngsters who protested at the closure of the site during Yom Hashoah, might indicate that government policies are shifting.

 

Without doubt, the Temple mount is a symbol that goes to the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Over the past years, the Israeli government has at times closed the entrance to the Temple Mount, claiming that the atmosphere was too tense. In doing so, they withheld Arabs to pray at the site which, in turn, led to serious political tensions and protests. Far more than a physical site, the Temple Mount, on which the Temple itself is ironically absent, has become a spiritual and political site, loaded with meaning. It is a monument of the imagination for the Jews and a the oldest existing religious Islamic monument which is, after Mecca and Medina, the third important religious site to Muslims.

 

*  Depending on whether your count Zerubbabel’s Temple a building in its own right. In 538 BC, Zerubbabel, the leader of the tribe of Judah, was part of the first wave of Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem. He immediately began with the rebuilding of the lost Temple of Solomon. However, he had much fewer resources.  There was a group of Jews in Jerusalem who were rather disappointed with the Temple. To their minds, it did not even begin to compare with the splendor of Solomon’s temple.

** Religious Jews do not consider Jesus as the Messias and are still waiting for the coming of the Messias.

Different Shades of Denial: are the White House and the German far right relativizing the Holocaust?

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

 

January is an important month for those involved in Holocaust remembrance; the 27th of January, the day that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a month in which events are organised that involve Holocaust remembrance or topics related to the crimes of the Nazi regime, such as the Nooit Meer Auschwitz lecture in Amsterdam. It is also a month in which politicians engage in public statements regarding (the commemoration of) the Holocaust and the Second World War. However, it is also in the realm of politics where genocide, be it the Holocaust or any other, can become a dangerously fluid, unclear and undefined concept. Lobbyists, activists, and politicians from all different sides of the political spectrum use the term for their own agenda, thereby often (wilfully?) misinterpreting the facts. I will point out two examples.


At a speech in Dresden
on the 17th of January, Björn Höcke, a politician from the German right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD), labelled the Berlin Holocaust memorial a ‘monument of shame’. Höcke, a former history teacher, said; “Until now, our mental state continues to be that of a totally defeated people. We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”. General outrage from within as well as outside Germany followed as Höcke was being condemned for his statement as being anti-Semitic and a demagogue. One way or another, it is highly questionable if a political figure should engage in such inflammatory comments on (the remembrance of) a not-so-long-ago history. Perhaps his political agenda guided him otherwise.


The United States White House commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a statement. The statement reads: “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”. Here too the statement was followed by astonishment since it did not include Jews, Judaism or antisemitism. Jonathan Freedlander commented in The Guardian: “The Nazis were broad in their hatred, targeting Roma, gay people and disabled people, as well as socialists, communists and many others. But any full account of that period begins with the recognition that Jews were singled out for total eradication.”. According to professor Deborah Lipstadt, whose story on Holocaust denial is intriguingly depicted in the film Denial, it is a form of classic “softcore denial” of the Holocaust. According to Lipstadt, the statement is not necessarily denying the facts but it minimizes them; arguing that the Jews as a group were not particularly targeted for destruction. This way, the Holocaust is de-Judaized.


Denial comes in many shapes and forms. The deaths in a genocide can for instance be rationalized as a result of an ‘age old conflict’ (as the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić did during the Bosnian war), or the statistics can be questioned or minimized. A common form of denial, especially among lawyers and politicians, is the claim that what is going on is not genocide. It is a definitional argument of which the United States State Department employees were fully aware when they drafted a memo in May 1994 (during the Rwandan genocide) saying; “Be careful … Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually ‘do something’”. Different actors can deny certain things from having happened, from individual politicians to states – such as Turkey denying the Armenian genocide.


In the described statements, Holocaust denial or not, politicians are venturing out onto a slippery slope. Where the German politician Höcke can be said to trivialize the remembrance of the Holocaust, the United States government is minimizing the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. As with many historical events – and perhaps especially commemorations – the Holocaust is being used for political agendas. Höcke, in the face of the refugee crisis and the recent terrorist attack in Berlin, might want to construct the image of a unified glorious German people to build on a better and brighter future instead of a defeated people with a shameful past. The motives for the United States might be focussed on combating the Jews “special pleading” over the Holocaust.


The sociologist Stanley Cohen offers an interesting perspective in his influential work States of Denial (2001). Trying to answer the question “how could people simultaneously know and not know about certain matters?”, Cohen argues that there seem to be “states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and we don’t know at the same time”. The language that was being used during the extermination process is hereby an important aspect. The euphemisms, or language rules, that were deployed in the extermination process made it possible to deny what was actually happening; “the victims of Nazi atrocities were ‘deported’ to ‘work camps’ for ‘special actions’”. The meaning of the Holocaust is hereby simultaneously literally denied and one can thus claim it did not happen – during but also afterwards the genocide itself.


These language rules that are being used to literally deny and thereby reject the actual meaning of the Holocaust sound awkwardly reminiscent to the “alternative facts” (“falsehoods”, or in other words: denying the truth) of the new Trump administration. And we venture out further on that slippery slope…

 

Populist rivalry: Trump’s impact on the future and politics of Israel

Trump_CPAC_2011

 

Trump_CPAC_2011

 Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 (creative commons).

 

By Laurien Vastenhout

 

After a period of disbelief and evasive responses, the world now has to face that Donald Trump is President of the United States. To the extent possible, Trump’s measured victory speech in November was ‘hopeful’; at least his tone had softened somewhat. It was not unthinkable that he had played a harsh election campaign, but in practice would be more appeasing. These were encouraging signs. However, the interview with the UK’s Times and the German tabloid Bild last week indicated that there was no moderation after all. With Trump’s support of the UK’s ‘hard’ Brexit, and China’s president Xi Jinping’s announcement to protect the world’s economy against Trump, it seems that the entire world politics and economy is about to change over the course of the coming months and years. One of the crucial topics that has to be examined in this context is the everlasting conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East and the role of the United States herein. A friend and true (financial) supporter of Israel for many years, Trump is about to break with the decades of cautious US policy vis-à-vis the conflict. What can we expect from the Trump administration in the Middle East? And is Benjamin Netanyahu, current Prime-minister of Israel and chairman of the right-wing Likud Party indeed as happy with the Trump’s support as it seemed in his tweet of December, 28 2016, in which he thanked Trump for the warm friendship and clear-cut  support for Israel? This article seeks to create insight in the multiple dangers that lie ahead.

 

There are two individuals Trump nominated on central positions who we should investigate more closely: David Friedman, appointed ambassador to Israel, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Friedman is a pro-Israel hardliner, and strongly opposes the two-state solution. Being part of Trump’s advisory team, David Friedman co-authored a 16-point action plan in November last year in which his views on the difficult situation in Israel/Palestine are outlined. The Trump administration will ensure that ‘Israel receives maximum military, strategic and tactical cooperation from the United States’, the plan stated. Between the lines, one can read the rejection of the apparent ‘anti-Israel’ attitude of the United Nation (UN) members– see the recent United States Security Council resolution from which the US abstained –  and a strong support for an undivided Jerusalem capital. The latter is a highly sensitive topic as Palestine seeks to maintain the Eastern part of Jerusalem as future capital of Palestine, while Israel believes all of Jerusalem should belong to their country. The attempted relocation of the Main Office of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem therefore is an important indicator of the political line chosen by the Trump administration. Moreover, Friedman is president of the American Friends of Beit El, which supports Israeli hardline settlement movements and believes that Israel is legally entitled to annex the West Bank.

 

Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner, who is appointed to orchestrate a deal between Israel and Palestine has no experience with politics in the Middle East at all. Although, as an orthodox Jew, he is undoubtedly concerned with the area, his complete unfamiliarity with both Israeli and Palestinian politicians is disquieting. Kusner’s links to a far-right Jewish settlement in the West Bank, to which he donated money, are not very promising either. Clearly, the settler movement will have solid backing in Trump’s administration. Palestinians and their allies have repeatedly called on the UN to force Israel to stop with the settlements as it causes hindrance to serious negotiations. As a result, one of Trump’s major political goals, to reach an agreement in the ongoing conflict, seems a utopian line of thought. All of these difficulties, added to his wish to pull out of the nuclear pact signed with Iran in 2016, raise concern about the position of Arab countries of the Middle East.

 

Ironically, Trump’s presidency does not only raise difficulties for Arab countries and Palestine in particular; Benjamin Netanyahu might in fact be not so happy with Trump’s involvement in the region either. Netanyahu’s policies on the settlements in the West Bank over the past years can be characterised by ambiguity and delay. By pretending to keep a two-state solution alive, Netanyahu has often safeguarded the support of the United Stated for himself at the cost of more right-wing politicians. Now important positions in the Trump-administration are taken by pro-settler politicians, this tactic has become ineffectual. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev has somewhat ironically indicated that Trump is in fact making Netanyahu seem a ‘left wing defeatist’. In practice, this means that Netanyahu’s position is threatened by his far-right Minister of Education and political leader of the extreme right-wing party HaJehoedie (The Jewish Home Party): Naftali Bennett.

 

Bennett has suggested that Trump’s election signals the end of the two-state solution and the attempts to establish a Palestinian state. Obviously, he uses Trump’s to pressure Netanyahu to recognise the settlements as permanent. Through his statements, Bennett has secured the support of the majority of the Jewish settlers. For a right-wing political leader, this support is of key importance. Netanyahu’s recent aggressive response towards the UN resolution to end Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories at the end of 2016, indicates that he feels he has to win back right-wing voters. Both Netanyahu and Bennett are increasingly using right-wing, nationalistic discourse to prevail. In the case of Bennett, it is no secret that he aims to become Prime Minister himself. Not only is this an alarming development in Israeli politics, it also might cause that Jews around the world feel increasingly disconnected with the country. This, in turn, will result in an increasing isolation of the country.

 

The current situation in Israel and the proposed policies of the Trump administration, which do not favour a two-state solution, are thus worrisome. Although supported by the US, Israel will become a lone wolf in world politics due to its increasing hard stance vis-à-vis settlements in the West Bank. Both internal and external forces ensure that a solution to the long-standing conflict seems further away than ever, despite Trump’s genuine believe that his administration will broker an agreement. Bennett’s recent declaration that he will propose a bill to extent Israeli sovereignty to Maale Adumin, the third-large Jewish settlement in the West Bank, shows that a first major step has already been taken. The coming weeks and months we will have to wait and see how US policies unfold in the region. Without doubt, Maale Adumin will be the first test case and major determinant of America’s policies in the Middle East.