What Mike Pence Just Did in Jerusalem
Boy, when I’m wrong on the Middle East, I’m really wrong.
Almost from the beginning of the Trump administration, I predicted with the certainty of a believer that within a year, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu would be annoying the hell out of one another.
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My logic was based on the simple proposition that two big and prickly egos can hardly occupy the same space at the same time—and who are two bigger egos than Trump and Netanyahu? And there were other factors, including an Israeli right wing eager to push Netanyahu ever rightward and the prime minister’s preternatural tendency to overdo things. All that, I figured, would sooner rather than later create a great deal of tension between America’s new president and Israel’s canniest political survivor, and make Trumpland an inhospitable place for Netanyahu’s politics and policies.
By the end of 2017 and the president’s announcement declaring Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel—a decision largely explained by Trump’s need to cater to the Republican base and his lack of respect for foreign policy elites—I should have gotten the message there would be no train wreck coming.
Just watch the vice president’s recent trip to Israel—a mutual lovefest like nothing I’ve ever seen in some 40 years of watching American leaders interact with their often irascible Israeli counterparts. Mike Pence’s trip was less important for what it accomplished than what it reflected and represented: Under Trump: the U.S.-Israel relationship has undergone a transition from a valued special relationship to one that’s seemingly exclusive. The need for “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel used to be a talking point wielded by staunchly pro-Israeli supporters against Democratic and Republican presidents alike; Trump has turned it into official policy, and many foreign policy hands worry that the U.S. interest is being lost in the process.
Pro-Israeli vice presidents have come and gone to Israel (Al Gore, Joe Biden) but none seems to have left the impression Pence did. His trip, announced at the end of October and then postponed because of the tax vote in December, was never driven by a specific foreign policy agenda. Sure, there were stops in Cairo and Jordan, though these were made more complex by the president’s announcement on Jerusalem and the refusal of Arab Christian leaders to meet with a vice president whose Christian faith is deep and abiding.
But these were footnotes in the run up to the main storyline: Pence’s visit to Israel. The vice president spent his less than 48 hours in Israel saying literally everything Israelis wanted to hear: he vowed to fix the Iran deal or cancel it; made it clear the U.S. Embassy would open in Jerusalem earlier than planned; validated Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital and vowed to make the U.S.-Israeli relationship stronger still.
It turns out, too, that Pence benefitted from the revised timing of the trip. His visit came just days after Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas, in an unhinged speech ripping Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, veered into rank anti-Semitism and denied the Jewish people’s historic connection to Israel. “This is a colonial enterprise that has nothing to do with Jewishness,” Abbas said. “The Jews were used as a tool under the concept of the promised land — call it whatever you want. Everything has been made up.” Those who have been arguing for years that Abbas is no partner for peace—Netanyahu above all—hardly could have scripted it better.
“The Jewish people’s unbreakable bond to this sacred city reaches back more than 3,000 years,” Pence said in a speech to the Israeli legislature that was infused with religious references. “It was here, in Jerusalem, on Mount Moriah that Abraham offered his son, Isaac, and was credited with righteousness for his faith in God.”
Even some on the left, like the columnist Chemi Shalev of Haaretz, hailed Pence’s address as “one of the most unabashedly Zionist speeches—perhaps sermon is the better word—ever heard in the Israeli Knesset. … For messianic Jews and Evangelicals, like Pence, the speech was a confirmation that momentous days are here again, with sounds of rapture and signs of the Messiah.” Israeli newspapers ran the remarks in full.
Pence isn’t just playing cheap politics to cater to his base; he really does see Israel in religious terms. When I interviewed then Representative Pence in 2006 on Israel, he began by quoting the book of Genesis: “I will bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who curse thee.” And Pence’s view reflect millions of Evangelicals who feel much the same way. This is hardly new. What’s new is that you now have an influential vice president sitting next to a president who shows no interest even in pretending to be even-handed on the Arab-Israeli conflict; he’s all in for Israel.
The tenor of Pence’s pilgrimage to Israel doesn’t just reflect the eschatology and end-times beliefs of many Evangelical Christians. It also reflects the more practical calculation that maintaining a decidedly pro-Israeli sensibility—on Jerusalem, the peace process, the Iran nuclear deal and having Israel’s back at the U.N. no matter what—plays really well among mainstream Republican voters. What was once a thoroughly bipartisan issue has been increasingly harnessed in the service of partisan politics, as a recent Pew poll reflects: Currently, 79 percent of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27 percent of Democrats —a gap wider than at any point since 1978.
For a president whose prime directive on foreign policy flows from his preternatural focus on domestic politics, these numbers represent sweet music. Add to that Trump’s obsession with portraying himself as the un-Obama, and the sun, moon and stars are perfectly aligned to create an almost seamless bond between the U.S. and Israel.
“We stand with Israel because we believe in right over wrong, in good over evil, and in liberty over tyranny,” Pence said in his Knesset speech—and it so happens that Palestinians, Iranians, ISIS, and the Assad regime are all playing their proper roles in this morality play. Even the so-called “good” Arabs—Saudis; Jordanians, Egyptians and Emiratis—are closer to Israel and want to remain in Trump’s good graces, at least for now.
Will this love affair continue? Many peace process veterans would argue that being this uncritically close to Israel is both illogical and irrational, harms America’s capacity to manage tough issues like the peace process or the Iran deal and undermines the U.S. national interest. But in Trumpland, that’s clearly not the view. The peace process is all but dead—you could invite Moses, Jesus and Mohammed back from the afterlife to resolve it, and it likely wouldn’t help. And clearly, anyone who thought Trump’s hunger for making “the ultimate deal” would lead him to put real pressure on Netanyahu got this one wrong.
Maybe we’ll be surprised. Perhaps, if and when Trump unveils his putative peace plan, he’ll be willing to use vinegar and honey. Maybe Israel will do something galactically unwise to annoy and alienate the president, as I once predicted. Maybe Arab leaders will start feeling the heat from their own people, and pressure the U.S. to tone it down. Maybe cooler heads will realize that while Israel is the only country in the region in which there is any real coincidence of interests and values with the U.S., it’s not wise for either country to attach itself to the other like barnacles to the side of a boat. Many things can happen in Trumpland. And after all, we’re only a year into the Trump presidency. But given the laws governing the U.S.-Israeli relationship these days, a major bust-up between America and Israel doesn’t seem to be one of them.
via POLITICO Magazine
January 23, 2018 at 02:15PMNo tags for this post.