JERUSALEM (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's expected tour of a West Bank winery this week will be the first time a top American diplomat has visited an Israeli settlement, a parting gift from an administration that has taken unprecedented steps to support Israel's claims to war-won territory.
The Psagot winery, established in part on land the Palestinians say was stolen from local residents, is part of a sprawling network of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that most of the international community views as a violation of international law and a major obstacle to peace.
The award-winning winery, which offers tours and event spaces, is a focus of Israel's efforts to promote tourism in the occupied territory and a potent symbol of its fight against campaigns to boycott or label products from the settlements.
Pompeo's expected visit, reported by Israeli media but not officially confirmed, would mark a radical departure from past administrations, both Democratic and Republican, which frequently scolded Israel over settlement construction — to little effect.
President Donald Trump has already broken with his predecessors by recognizing contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital and repudiating the decades-old U.S. position that settlements are inconsistent with international law. The administration has also recognized Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 war, where Pompeo may also pay a visit.
Trump's Mideast plan, which overwhelmingly favored Israel and was immediately rejected by the Palestinians, would have allowed Israel to annex nearly a third of the West Bank, including all of its settlements.
The visit to the winery — which released a blended red wine named for the secretary last year — would be yet another gift to Israel in the final weeks of Trump's presidency, even as neither Trump nor Pompeo have acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden's victory.
The visit could also burnish Pompeo's credentials with evangelical Christians and other supporters of Israel should he pursue a post-Trump political career.
The Falic family of Florida, owners of the ubiquitous chain of Duty Free Americas shops, is a major investor in the winery. An Associated Press investigation last year found that the family has donated at least $5.6 million to settler groups in the West Bank and east Jerusalem over the past decade. Since 2000, they have donated at least $1.7 million to pro-Israel politicians in the U.S., both Democrats and Republicans, including Trump.
One of the owners, Simon Falic, was not able to confirm Pompeo's visit, but told the AP “it would be a great honor to welcome him and to thank him for his unwavering support of Israel.”
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 war, territories the Palestinians want for their future state. Since then, it has built some 130 settlements and dozens of smaller outposts, ranging from clusters of mobile homes on remote hilltops to fully developed towns. Over 460,000 Israeli settlers reside in the occupied West Bank and more than 220,000 live in annexed east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians say the settlements make it nearly impossible to create a viable state — which was one of the main goals of the settlers who established them.
The settlers, most of whom oppose a Palestinian state and view Jerusalem and the West Bank as the biblical and historical heart of Israel, say they are the scapegoats for a long-standing approach to solving the conflict that was never going to succeed.
“More important than where (Pompeo) is going to visit ... is the message," said Oded Revivi, mayor of the Efrat settlement. “The message that he’s bringing with him is one of not falling into the trap that (former U.S. President) Jimmy Carter has set of treating us as second-class citizens, of seeing us as an obstacle to peace.”
The Palestinians say many of the settlements, including Psagot and its winery, were built on land stolen from private Palestinian owners. The residents of the nearby town of Al-Bireh — many of whom are American citizens — say the settlement gobbled up their land after Israel built a security fence around Psagot during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s.
Kainat and Karema Quraan, two sisters from Al-Bireh, say they have documents showing they own a plot of land on which some of the vineyards and a winery building were established.
“Imagine that your own land, your property, that you lived off of and your ancestors lived off of, is taken like this by strangers, by force, and you can’t touch it,” Kainat said.
Muneef Traish, an Al-Bireh city council member who has U.S. citizenship, has led a legal campaign for years on behalf of the community seeking the return of the confiscated lands. He said the settlers seized a total of 1,000 dunams (250 acres), 400 of which are being used by the winery.
Falic said he was not aware of any claims to the lands on which the winery is built, and that it was recently relocated to a nearby industrial zone in the West Bank, on land purchased directly from the Israeli government.
“There should be NO controversy on products produced by Jews, in Judea,” he wrote to the AP, referring to the southern West Bank by its biblical name. “The winery’s location and success should not create controversy, but rather Jewish and Israeli pride.”
Last November, the European Court of Justice ruled that European countries must label products originating in the settlements. The decision came after the Psagot winery, which produces 600,000 bottles a year and exports 70% of them, challenged an earlier ruling.
Israel lashed out at the decision to make the labels mandatory, saying it was unfair, discriminatory and would embolden the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel.
A week after the ruling, Pompeo announced that the U.S. no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be a violation of international law, reversing four decades of American policy.
To express its gratitude, Psagot released a new wine called “Pompeo,” a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot.
“The U.S. administration’s message is extremely important and strengthens our ongoing fight against the boycott and hypocrisy campaign,” Yaakov Berg, the CEO of the winery, said at the time. “We will continue this just and moral struggle.”
A very different struggle is underway in Al-Bireh, where city councilman Traish and other residents plan to protest Pompeo's visit to the encroaching settlement.
“We want to say to Pompeo that instead of asking Israel to return the land to American citizens, you are here to celebrate the occupation,” he said.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Al-Bireh, West Bank, and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.