Mike Pence Just Did in Jerusalem
By Aaron David
January 23, 2018
Boy, when I’m wrong on the Middle East, I’m really
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.
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 benefited 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
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 views reflect those of 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 Muhammad 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.