When Donald Trump declared that 70-80% of the U.S. Jewish community (the percentage that is voting Democrat these days) suffered from “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” it set off a firestorm of objections from most of that community. From the center-right leadership of the American Jewish Committee to the left wing, progressive Jewish Voice for Peace, a wide swath of Jews expressed their outrage at the obvious anti-Semitism in Trump’s words.
Of course, the far-right Jews in Trump’s corner supported him. The Republican Jewish Coalition said that Trump was “talking about the survival of the Jewish state,” an argument Trump himself debunked when he clarified his remarks.
But the right was simply playing its role. The real problem came from the reaction of some so-called “liberals,” a reaction rooted in the same dishonesty that frames the entire Israel debate in the United States. Read more at LobeLog
On Sunday, the Trump administration said that it would release the economic component of the “deal of the century” in late June. That statement is a walkback of an earlier pledge to release the whole plan after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which end on June 5 and June 10, respectively.
More than that, the release of the political component—if one even exists—is yet again delayed until an unspecified date later this year.
The reveal of an economic plan hints that there might be a political plan somewhere, while this continuing delay and uncertainty reinforce the notion that there is not. In either case, the economic portion seems to be real enough, as President Donald Trump’s point man on the “deal of the century”—First Son-In-Law Jared Kushner—has assembled a conference to be held in Bahrain in late June to unveil it and to get the wealthy Gulf states to contribute to it.
This is not the first mention of an “economic peace” for the Palestinians. The Trump administration has made no secret of its belief that it can buy Palestinian acquiescence, a view strongly encouraged by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has advocated “economic peace” for many years. Read more at LobeLog
Last Friday, the State Department announced it would end all funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides many essential services for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The reaction to this decision has been mostly negative.
These are all important concerns. But none of them hits the mark of what the Trump administration—apparently at the urging of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without any consultation with anyone else in the Israeli government or defense establishment—is doing. This is not merely an attack on UNRWA, as serious as that may be. This is an attempt to destroy the Palestinian national movement. Read more at LobeLog
Every year, anyone who works on United States policy toward Israel, Palestine, or the broader Middle East watches the annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee
US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley
(AIPAC) very closely. At that conference, we expect not only to find out a great deal about where the US and Israeli governments stand at the moment, but also what is likely to occupy the attention of Congress for the coming year regarding Middle East policy.
At last year’s conference, then-candidate Donald Trump’s appearance and warm reception caused one of the deepest divides in the Jewish community in recent memory. AIPAC’s day-after public apology to President Barack Obama for the ovations that Trump’s sharply critical words drew was a landmark event, and was an incident that the powerful lobbying group was hoping to bury this year.
AIPAC wanted their 2017 conference to be one that brought its supporters–who span a considerable political spectrum apart from Middle East policy–back together, and one that also set a clear agenda for the group’s activities for the first year of the Trump Administration. It was not entirely successful in either goal.
Jewish Extremists Attack Protesters
Some of this year’s most dramatic events occurred outside the conference doors. Members of the so-called “Jewish Defense League” (JDL) demonstrated outside the conference. They were there ostensibly as a counter to the groups protesting AIPAC’s support for Israeli policies, especially the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is about to enter its 50th year.
AIPAC must have been relieved that the incidents garnered little mainstream media coverage. The JDL members, whose coordinator said they were there to “protect Jews in danger of being attacked,” waved flags and wore t-shirts bearing the fist inside a Star of David that is a symbol of the outlawed Israeli political party Kach. That party was expelled and made illegal in Israel due to its outspoken racism, and has since been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, Canada, and, most notably, Israel.
The JDL, while not listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, has been accused, and some of its members convicted, of terrorist acts in the U.S. in the past. As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now tweeted, “If these thugs had been under the flag of an Arab/Muslim FTO (foreign terrorist organization, which Kach is), (it) would have been huge news.”
Still, despite the lack of coverage, there can be little doubt that ongoing actions by IfNotNow, a group of Jewish millennials, signals a deepening breach in the Jewish community around Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. In an attempt to reach out to both AIPAC supporters and opponents of the occupation, Knesset Member Tamar Zandberg, of Israel’s Meretz party, spoke both inside the conference and outside to the protesters, earning her severe criticism from the Israeli right.
Zandberg became one of the few links between the scene outside the conference and what was going on inside.
Where’s the Two-State Solution?
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the conference this year was the scant mention that was made from most of the featured speakers of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Officially, AIPAC still supports the two-state solution, but that support is much weaker than it has been in the past.
In the wake of the presidential election last November, AIPAC pulled mention of the two-state solution from its list of talking points on its web site. The idea does appear elsewhere on the site, but clearly there was a decision taken to de-emphasize it in the wake of the Republican victory in November, after that party had removed support for two states from its party platform. The Republican decision, AIPAC’s response to it, and Donald Trump’s ambiguous statements about the two-state solution have created a great deal of confusion about what the United States’ vision for a solution is. This confusion is only magnified by the fact that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pays only the barest lip service to a two-state solution and most of his governing coalition explicitly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi read out a letter, signed by 191 House members (including two Republicans) and backed by AIPAC’s liberal competitor, J Street, calling on Trump to reaffirm U.S. support for the two-state solution. Pelosi got enough applause to make it clear that this long-time U.S. position still enjoyed significant support among the AIPAC audience. It also set off partisan sniping from the stage, demonstrating that, on this issue like so many others, there is an enormous partisan divide and that, despite AIPAC’s efforts at unity, this divide is reflected in the pro-Israel lobby as well.
With peace negotiations off the table, for the moment at least, AIPAC’s legislative agenda focused on undermining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (the nuclear deal) and a bill that simultaneously attacks the United Nations and extends protections against boycotts of Israel to boycotts of its settlements. These are not new issues for AIPAC. But the focus on these issues, and in support of AIPAC-sponsored bills that were brought to Congress shortly before the conference, indicates that AIPAC is satisfied to leave the Palestinian issue where it is and instead is turning its lobbying effort to ensuring that criticism of Israel will carry a very high price and that the Trump Administration will have more tools to thwart any further cooling of relations between the US and Iran.
AIPAC Loves Nikki Haley
The story that many seemed to focus on coming out of the conference this year was the popularity of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Haley benefits from being both a personable conservative and a crusader for the Netanyahu government in the UN. Some observers at AIPAC believed she had taken her first step toward securing a future presidential nomination. That is a vast overstatement, but there is no doubt that Haley was the one person who came out of the conference riding a rising tide.
AIPAC and its supporters had always had a guarded, and sometimes even hostile, view of Samantha Power, Haley’s predecessor under Barack Obama. But Haley has long been clear that her support for Israel is not dimmed one bit by Israel’s ongoing occupation, and this has won her unambiguous AIPAC support. She is in a perfect position in an administration that disdains international cooperation or any other arrangements that put even the slightest limits on U.S. freedom of action. That means that most of Haley’s job is establishing that the United States will do everything in its power to ensure that the United Nations is as marginalized as possible when it comes to Israel.
Nothing pleases the AIPAC crowd more than this. Haley’s unqualified defense of Israel at the UN combines well with her broader image as a “compassionate conservative” to make her AIPAC’s shining star of 2017. Still, it’s worth recalling that her anti-choice stance and support for the flying of the Confederate flag–until the 2015 Charleston Church Shooting made it politically unsustainable—are likely to mean most AIPAC attendees will not be as supportive of her outside that conference hall as they were inside it.
Success or Failure?
In the last analysis, this conference can be viewed as a glass half full or half empty. It certainly was not the divisive moment for the pro-Israel community that last year’s confab was. Yet the schisms that were so apparent in 2016 were shown not to have healed.
On a policy level, AIPAC is drifting and appears unsure of itself. The scene outside the conference was one where the Jewish alt-right extremists of the JDL were clearly closer to AIPAC’s side than the much more moderate protesters who are urging an end to the occupation, but are not advocating any anti-Israel measures. The two-state solution is still in the air, and while the Republicans have withdrawn support for it, no one has actually come out against it, as many in the current Israeli government have done.
Nikki Haley may have emerged as a new hero, but there was very little substance from the other big speakers. Vice President Mike Pence tried to prop up President Trump’s indecisive image by again dropping the idea of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (which he said the President was “seriously considering”) but few put much stock in this after the flip-flopping Trump has already done on the issue. It was also an unspoken reality that Trump’s now-confirmed pick for Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was needlessly divisive. It increased partisanship on the issue of Israel and once more laid bare the splits in the Jewish community on the issue.
AIPAC moves on from its 2017 conference with its influence on Congress still strong, but clearly slipping, as it is torn between pushing a bipartisan agenda and working with the new President. The indecisiveness of the potent lobbying group is hardly surprising, given the lack of any sort of vision coming from either the Israeli Prime Minister or the U.S. President.
That creates an opening for other forces. In order to take advantage of it, however, someone, be it an Israeli leader or a U.S. liberal one, must articulate an alternative vision of the future, one that is achievable even if far off, and one that can inspire supporters of both Israelis and Palestinians. The window for that leader is open, but one cannot say for how long.
Given the frequently bombastic rhetoric that has come from the new President of the United States in his first two weeks in office, it is not surprising that many observers are reading the statement from the White House about Israeli settlements as being much sterner than it is. Expectations (and fears) have been raised in some quarters that President Donald Trump would be even more supportive of settlements than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the statement has been read by many in that context.
As Israeli analyst Gershom Gorenberg said in a tweet early Friday, “(The) previous Israeli attitude was ‘The dogs bark and the convoy rolls on.’ Now (the) dog isn’t even barking.” Gorenberg is right, there was very little warning in this statement.The most important point made in the statement is an enormous gift to the Israeli right. The White House says that “…we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace.” That is a direct break with 50 years of fully bipartisan US policy on the matter. Following that with a statement that expansion of settlements “may not be helpful” in achieving peace is, contrary to what some have said, a much weaker statement than past presidents, including George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama, have issued.
There are, however, some things that can be reasonably read into it. First, Netanyahu’s announcements this week of moving forward with still more settlement units as well as proposing the first new settlement initiated by the Israeli government in a decade were made without coordinating with the Trump administration. Given that Trump met briefly with Jordan’s King Abdullah just yesterday at the annual White House Prayer Breakfast and that Arab heads of state as well as cooler heads in both the Israeli government, and the pro-Netanyahu wing of the pro-Israel community in the US have been urging Trump to be more thoughtful of regional concerns in his approach to Israel, it is not surprising that Trump would want to make it clear to Netanyahu that he isn’t giving a blanket green light to doing such things without coordinating with Washington.
Also, the much more careful and nuanced tone here stands in sharp contrast with most of the Trump Administration’s early statements. This suggests that the White House may have sought more input on this statement than they had on others.
Indeed, it is entirely possible that such input was gathered from Israel or supporters in the US. The statement serves a crucial purpose for Netanyahu that seems to have escaped the notice of many.
The evacuation of the illegal (according to Israeli law) Amona outpost has been a huge controversy for Netanyahu for quite some time. As the evacuation was carried out this week the controversy reached a crescendo. Even though pro-settlement forces in Israel have been handsomely compensated with a bill in the Knesset to legalize outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land, announcements of new settlements, and vows from Netanyahu for much more, the settler movement was still dissatisfied. They expected more from a Prime Minister who, they believed, was completely freed from the shackles of the Obama administration.
Trump’s statement provides badly needed cover for Netanyahu to push back against those arguments. He is now able to portray himself as both a great friend of the settlements and a wise statesman who will take advantage of the opportunities Trump gives him, but will also act as a good friend to the Republican administration and not go so far as to embarrass it. It doesn’t suit Netanyahu to have a US administration that, like David Friedman (the man Trump has nominated as ambassador to Israel), supports settlements more than Netanyahu. Trump has now avoided being portrayed that way.
True, the White House’s statement last night dampened some of the more salacious fantasies of the settlement movement. But it was the absolute perfect statement for Netanyahu. That it was less “Trump-ian” than most of the President’s statements may have caught some people off-guard. But there is no less to worry about in regards to the new administration today than there was yesterday. Hopefully, after the initial shock from the tone of the statement wears off, more observers will recognize that.