By Daoud Kuttab
May 22, 2017
When the Israeli army finally withdrew from major Palestinian cities in fulfilment of the Oslo Accord, then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat paid close attention to the city of Bethlehem.
Realizing the importance of the birthplace of Christianity, Arafat made it a tradition to attend the annual Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which is broadcast live throughout the world. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, has attended Mass on the evening of Dec. 24 every single year since he became president.
The presence of Abbas in Bethlehem during the Christmas season has also turned into a political opportunity, with Abbas meeting local figures and following up on issues of interest to the people of Bethlehem and the region.
Not only has Bethlehem been a focus of attention for the Palestinian political leadership, but the city has also produced well-known public figures from its local government. Elias Freij, the mayor from 1972-1997 who died in 1998, used his elected position to advance his own career as well as bring attention to the city. After she was elected mayor in 2012, Bethlehem University professor Vera Baboun also became well known.
The mayor not only participates in events such as the Christmas tree lighting and Christmas Eve Mass but also is called on regularly to receive political, artistic and other world figures visiting Bethlehem throughout the year. When Pope Francis visited Bethlehem on May 25, 2014, and stopped at the security wall for a short prayer, his photo standing by the wall ended up on the front pages of many international papers and magazines.
It is not surprising that US President Donald Trump plans to make Bethlehem his third stop on his eight-day inaugural world tour. He will visit Bethlehem after Riyadh and Jerusalem, and before Rome.
Palestinian officials have kept the detailed itinerary of Trump’s visit under wraps. When the pope visited Bethlehem, he not only spent time at the Church of the Nativity but also visited Dheisheh refugee camp to speak with Palestinian refugees. Dheisheh camp is where the current head of the Palestinian intelligence service, Majid Faraj, hails from.
Abbas has a presidential residence not far from Dheisheh where most likely Trump and his entourage will spend some time during his visit.
For Palestinians and Arabs, including Palestinian Christians, Jerusalem is a more important city. But because Jerusalem has been under full Israeli control, Bethlehem has become the substitute religious city, just as Ramallah has become the temporary political capital.
For King Abdullah of Jordan, the custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy places, the safeguarding of Jerusalem is a high priority. In a short speech in Riyadh during the Arab-Islamic-American summit May 21, Abdullah pointed out that Jerusalem is a “strategic linchpin,” insisting on the importance of the holy city to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. “All of us must engage in averting these dangers. To me personally, and to all Jordanians, the Hashemite custodianship of Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian holy sites is an unbreakable, historical responsibility, and an honor to undertake on behalf of the Arab and Muslim nations,” the king said.
During his short visit to Palestine, Trump is expected to give a political speech that many expect will lay out his administration’s plan as to the vision on how to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Trump has said that he hopes he can oversee the “ultimate” deal between the Palestinians and Israelis. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the US national security adviser, said May 12 that the US president is likely to speak of Palestinian self-determination as one of the foundations for a future peace in the region. While the term has been used by US presidents before, the US government has taken an even more advanced position of supporting an “independent and contiguous” Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with small land swaps. While the Palestinians will welcome the call for allowing them to determine their own future, there is worry that this might be a retraction from the commitments made by the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
Palestinians held municipal elections May 13, and Trump's visit will be the very first public engagement of Anton Salman, Bethlehem’s new mayor. Along with the city council and leaders of the Palestinian government, he might be welcoming Trump and his entourage. To what extent the US president's visit will be simply a religious pilgrimage or whether it will be a political one is still up in the air.