This article was originally published in Politico on December 28, 2016.
Tel Aviv — It was a valedictory speech, irrelevant in a few weeks, but John Kerry’s much-anticipated remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were still a remarkable indictment. In a 75-minute address at the State Department on Wednesday, the secretary of state outlined a long list of reasons why the two-state solution was on its deathbed, and defended last week’s abstention from a controversial Security Council vote on Israeli settlements. He laid most of the blame on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government, whose policies, he argued, were pushing Israel toward a binational state with the Palestinians. “Friends tell each other hard truths,” he said.
Netanyahu was quick to fire back, calling the speech “biased against Israel.” It was an immediate, furious reaction, just like Netanyahu’s response to the Security Council vote, when he accused the Obama administration of a “shameful ambush.” On Christmas Day, after the Foreign Ministry summoned diplomats from each Security Council member to deliver a demarche, the prime minister hauled in Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador, for his own 40-minute reprimand. Oren Hazan, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, said the vote “brought out the Hussein in Obama.”
“It is sad because our most important ally has abandoned a policy which has existed since 1967,” said Michael Oren, a former ambassador in Washington, D.C., who is now a lawmaker from the centrist Kulanu party.
This was untrue. The U.S. abstained from the 1979 Security Council resolution, and then actually voted in favor of a second one a few months later. There was nothing new in Friday’s decision: The U.N., like much of the world, has spent half a century condemning the settlements. Kerry reiterated that complaint on Wednesday, and expanded on it.
But Israel is not the same country it was in the 1970s. Which is why the furious responses to resolution 2334 and Kerry’s speech have almost nothing to do with the merits of the settlement program—and everything to do with domestic politics. In Israel, where the conservative Likud has been solidly in power for much of the past four decades, the peace process is no longer a major political issue. Rather, Netanyahu is trying to fend off challengers from an increasingly fractious and hawkish right—from those who don’t think Israeli expansion is moving fast enough—and hopes a dramatic campaign against the United Nations and the Obama administration will help him do that.
At the same time, the United States has evolved too. Support for Israel used to be a bipartisan certainty. But today, largely thanks to Israel’s rightward shift, both Democrats and Jews are less inclined to reflexively support their longtime ally. For all the outrage in Israel, Obama’s vote at the U.N.—though symbolic—was actually aligned with the views of his constituents.
Netanyahu has accordingly dropped any pretense of cordiality with the outgoing president and his supporters; he is openly counting the days until January 20. (One lawmaker literally said Trump’s victory signals the coming of the Messiah.) “The resolution that was passed at the U.N. yesterday is part of the swan song of the old world that is biased against Israel,” Netanyahu said in a vitriolic speech on Saturday. “But, my friends, we are entering a new era. And just as President-elect Trump said yesterday, it will happen much sooner than you think.”
But the embrace of Trump and the belligerence toward the rest of the world that Netanyahu is using to woo right-wing voters carries a profound risk. Israel is betting all its chips on an unpopular, untested president with no knowledge of the region and a history of breaking his campaign promises. If he does renege, Israel will find itself even more isolated.
And if he keeps his word—if Trump governs the way he campaigned—then he will promote policies that are deeply unpopular with many Americans, including American Jews. Implausible as it sounds, it may be Trump and Netanyahu, two men who profess to be Israel’s strongest defenders, who definitively shatter the “unbreakable alliance” and rupture the decades-old bipartisan consensus on Israel.
Netanyahu is Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister, and though he is often portrayed as an ideologue, his main goal often seems to be self-preservation. Most Israelis are tired of the ever-growing list of scandals swirling around his office, but he still plans to run for a fifth term, and perhaps more: He talks occasionally about his vision for the next decade.
He doesn’t lose sleep over challenges from Israel’s dysfunctional center-left. The Labor Party is adrift, mired in one of its biannual leadership struggles. Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid, recently surged in the polls, but mostly at Labor’s expense; he would struggle to put together a working coalition. And while several retired generals are thought to be keen for one final mission to unseat Netanyahu, they have yet to find a political home that would enable them to do so.
The prime minister, however, is vulnerable on his right flank. In his eight years in power (plus a three-year stint in the 1990s), he has done little to resolve Israel’s economic problems, or its myriad social and cultural arguments. Thus, his main selling point to voters—his only one, really—is that he is a tough, pragmatic nationalist who will stand up to the Palestinians and the international community.
But Israel’s conservatives, especially the younger ones, are increasingly religious and nationalist, and so Netanyahu faces a growing list of challengers who check the same box. Indeed, his ambassador at the United Nations, Danny Danon—an opponent of the two-state solution—was dispatched to Turtle Bay to take him out of Israeli politics for a few years. It’s not that the size of the right-wing/religious bloc in Israel has changed much—conservatives have made up the same portion of the population since the 1980s. It’s the composition of the bloc that’s evolving. Netanyahu is now among the most liberal members of his own party. And the Knesset is increasingly fractious: In 1977, when Israel elected its first right-wing government, Likud controlled 40 percent of the parliament; today it has just 25 percent. Netanyahu is forced to rely on smaller, more conservative right-wing parties for additional support—which empowers his more ideological opponents, most notably Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settler party, Jewish Home.
That was why, for a month before the U.N. vote, Netanyahu was consumed with the plight of 40 Israeli families living illegally on a hilltop outside of Ramallah in the West Bank. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that their community, Amona, was built on privately owned Palestinian land, and gave the state two years to demolish it. The deadline was Christmas Day.
Israel differentiates between settlements and “outposts,” which are built without government permission. Amona was the latter, illegal not just under international law but Israeli law as well. Yet the prime minister spent weeks trying to craft a solution that would let the scofflaws stay in their homes.
On December 5—at Netanyahu’s behest, but with Bennett leading the public campaign—the Knesset gave preliminary approval for the “regulation bill,” which retroactively legalized thousands of such houses across the West Bank. They did this even though the attorney general warned that he would struggle to defend the law in court, and that the Supreme Court would almost certainly strike it down. (The bill needs two more readings to become law, which will probably occur after Trump takes office.)
The bill did not save Amona, because the attorney general said doing so after the Supreme Court ruling would be unconstitutional. In mid-December, hundreds of supporters flocked to the outpost and promised to resist the Israeli police who would carry out the demolition order. They stockpiled tires and iron bars, and camped out in the cold and rain.
Amona had been dismantled once before, in 2006, and Likud used footage of the violent evacuation against the center-left Ehud Olmert in the subsequent general election. Netanyahu feared a rival might do the same to him. He drew up a fresh “compromise,” which would move most of the residents to an adjacent plot of state land, and presented it to them in a late-night meeting one week before the deadline. The relocation plan will cost 130 million shekels—roughly $850,000 for each family living in the outpost.
Days after the plan was approved, in a revealing sign of Netanyahu’s priorities, the government announced a roughly equivalent cut to the budget for education, health care and grants to local authorities.
Likud’s lone dissenting vote on the outpost bill came from Benny Begin, the son of Israel’s first right-wing prime minister. The elder Begin was a Revisionist, a supporter of settlements and “greater Israel,” but also a proponent of the rule of law and the separation of powers. In 1979, the Supreme Court ordered him to remove the settlement of Elon Moreh, built (like Amona) on privately owned Palestinian land. “Naturally we shall not make any announcements, which are completely unnecessary, saying that the Supreme Court’s decision should be respected,” he said at a Cabinet meeting shortly after the verdict. “They are unnecessary, because this goes without saying.”
The younger Begin followed in his father’s footsteps, denouncing the outpost bill as a “land grab.” After the vote, coalition whip David Bitan suspended him from his parliamentary committees for breaking discipline. One of them, ironically, was the committee on the constitution and law.
In February 2016, hundreds of American rabbis packed into a ballroom at Jerusalem’s posh Inbal hotel. It was the annual gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the umbrella organization for Reform Jewry in North America, the continent’s largest Jewish denomination.
In many ways, the visit had a celebratory feel. Three weeks earlier, the Israeli Cabinet voted to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews are allowed to worship. It was seen as a hard-fought victory for activists like these rabbis, who worked for decades to challenge the gender segregation enforced by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. They were further heartened by a February 11 court decision that required public mikvot, ritual baths, to open their doors for non-Orthodox converts.
But it wasn’t all a victory lap. Many of the rabbis were concerned about the moribund peace process, particularly Netanyahu’s 2015 flip-flop on Palestinian statehood. They were warned that Knesset members might heckle them on their visit to parliament later that week; one member of the ruling coalition had recently referred to Reform Jews as “mentally ill.” And they feared that the warfare between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, particularly the prime minister’s fierce campaign against the Iran deal, was doing irreparable damage to the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
“American Jews having that automatic connection and attachment to Israel can no longer be an operating assumption,” said Steven Fox, the group’s CEO. “The generation that lived through the miracle of 1948, the generation that saw the 1967 war, there was no question about loyalty. But today we can no longer assume that connection is there.”
The schism has been growing for decades. Back in the late 1980s, as the first intifada erupted in Israel and the occupied territories, Albert Vorspan was troubled by the “harvest of rage” on his television screen each night. Vorspan, then the senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, observed that Israel had become a “surrogate faith” for many secular American Jews. But the war in Lebanon, and the violence of the intifada, shattered their “romantic idealization.”
“Now Israel reveals itself, a nation like all the others,” he wrote in his diary, published years later. “Welcome to Israel’s Vietnam, Kent State and Watts rolled into one. What did we expect? An eternity of Golda Meir and ‘the woman of valor,’ kibbutzniks dancing the hora around bonfires?”
The Netanyahu years have accelerated this change. The prime minister has done little to advance the peace process (though the Palestinians, plagued by incessant infighting, certainly deserve a share of blame). He has channeled the worst aspects of Israel’s political culture, like his election-day warning about Arabs “coming to the polls in droves.” On top of that, Netanyahu has done little to address the issues, like the Western Wall or the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, that American Jews view as important. Despite the Cabinet’s decision at the beginning of the year, the mixed-gender prayer space still isn’t open. Netanyahu, fearful of offending his ultra-Orthodox partners, has buried it in bureaucratic red tape. Over the High Holidays, a group of Orthodox Jews took over the space and held segregated prayers. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party has introduced a bill that would make mixed-gender services at the wall a criminal offense, punishable by jail time.
The growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox right is a particular source of friction with the diaspora. Back in February, in a private meeting with the Reform rabbis, Netanyahu briefed them on the regional situation, describing the threat from “medieval” groups like the Islamic State and Hamas. “And I told him, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, we have medieval Jews as well,’” one participant later recalled. “He was silent for a moment. I think he was taken aback slightly.”
“That’s the disconnect for our young people,” said Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. “They hear about Israel and they think science, high-tech, life-saving medical advancements. And then they hear this other piece, and something doesn’t add up for them.”
The Brookings Institution, in its annual surveys presented at the Saban Forum, has found a widening partisan gap among the general public. A majority of Democrats (with whom 70 percent of Jews identify) now believe the Jewish state has too much influence on U.S. foreign policy and support imposing economic sanctions over the
And a 2013 Pew poll of American Jews found an intracommunal split: 60 percent of millennials feel an “emotional attachment” to Israel, versus 79 percent of senior citizens. Asked whether the U.S. is “too supportive” of Israel, a quarter of the Jewish millennials said yes, compared with just 5 percent of their grandparents. The community is also divided along denominational lines. Sixty-one percent of Orthodox Jews believe the Netanyahu government is making a sincere effort for peace; only 36 percent of Reform Jews agree. “From a national security perspective, Reform and Conservative Jews are our most effective voices in the United States,” said an Israeli political operative. “And we keep insulting them.”
“[Netanyahu] thinks that he knows the United States better than anybody else in this country,” said Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad director who became a fierce Netanyahu critic. “What he doesn’t know is that he knew a United States that no longer exists today.”
As the Democratic Party grows increasingly disaffected, the Republican president-elect seems poised to give the Israeli right everything it has ever wanted. Trump, who called himself Israel’s “best friend” in Washington, has promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did too, but both men changed their minds once in office: The status of the holy city is meant to be resolved in a final peace settlement, and advisers convinced these two presidents that the move would be an unnecessary provocation.
But the 45th president seems to be serious. “That is [a] very big priority for this president-elect,” his aide Kellyanne Conway said on December 12. “He made it very clear during the campaign … and as president-elect I've heard him repeat it several times privately, if not publicly.” His team has already started scouting possible locations for the embassy.
Fifteen years ago, the move might have had deadly consequences. Today, though, widespread riots seem far less likely. The Palestinians are divided and disheartened. Mahmoud Abbas, 81, recently hospitalized for heart problems, will not lead a new intifada. Arab states will protest, but if their quiet security ties with Israel survived the 2014 Gaza war, they will probably outlast the embassy’s change of address.
Trump has also made it clear that he will oppose critical resolutions at the U.N., and it is hard to imagine his press secretary or his secretary of state condemning new construction in the settlements. His choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, doesn’t just rhetorically support the settlements. He runs a foundation that donates money to one. Right-wing lawmakers in Israel are already calling for a major wave of new construction. Others want to go further: After the U.N. vote, Bennett renewed his call for Israel to annex “Area C,” a designation that covers two-thirds of the occupied West Bank. Such a move would foreclose any possibility of a Palestinian state. Friedman might protest—because Bennett doesn’t go far enough. He supports annexing the entire territory.
As the Amona saga came to a close, Chemi Shalev, a correspondent for Haaretz, joked that it would be even harder to evacuate outposts in the future because “U.S. envoy David Friedman will be among the demonstrators.”
All of this could make for the beginnings of a major shift in Israeli politics—ironically, one that the prime minister never wanted. Netanyahu is a cautious politician. He prefers the status quo to dramatic steps. For all their personal animosity, Obama was actually a great help in this respect: Netanyahu invoked his name in Cabinet meetings like a father warning his unruly children about the boogeyman. He used the specter of an American response to deter the far-right impulses of his coalition partners. With Trump in office, he loses that ability.
In order to stay in power, Netanyahu will have to appease the growing chorus of voices on his right. Some of the extreme views in his Cabinet are no longer so extreme. For example, a November poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 44 percent of Israeli Jews support annexation of the full West Bank, with just 38 percent opposed. Perhaps more striking, a plurality does not believe the Palestinians living there should be granted equal rights. “That is, a small but significant minority of the Jewish public supports a situation that the international community regards as apartheid,” the pollsters noted.
Any move toward annexation would cause irreparable harm to Israel’s relationships with its closest allies. As Kerry said in his speech, “if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both.”
In September, Netanyahu announced at the General Assembly that Israel had broadened its diplomatic relations, not just with traditional allies in the West, but with emerging powers and markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But many of these “new allies” were part of the 14 nations that voted unanimously for the resolution last week. Netanyahu speaks with Vladimir Putin more frequently than any Western leader, but Moscow voted in favor. He has spent years cultivating ties with tiny Senegal, which benefits from a major Israeli agricultural aid program. When it came time to vote at the Security Council, though, they supported the resolution.
And, at a news conference last year, Bennett said that Asian countries could become Israel’s closest friends, because they “lack a heritage of anti-Semitism” found in the West. But China and Japan backed the resolution, too. In fact, Asian diplomats in Tel Aviv tend to laugh when asked whether they would play a role as Israel’s protectors at the United Nations. “We’re not a very active player in this conflict, and I think that would continue to be the case,” one high-ranking Asian diplomat told me. “We want to maintain our distance and focus on other issues.”
Israel’s newest allies, in other words, are happy to increase trade, tourism and security cooperation—but when it comes to diplomacy, they won’t stick their necks out. And if the Netanyahu government provokes a stronger reaction from the U.N., they might even retreat.
Even more worrisome for Israel, however, is the growing alienation of American Jews, who find it more and more difficult to support a religious, right-wing government that they perceive as supporting Israeli racism and endless occupation. The tension between liberalism and Zionism, always lingering below the surface, has become more pronounced. And the Israeli government’s embrace of a president-elect (and his controversial political coterie) loathed by the vast majority of American Jews will only widen the chasm.
On December 13, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, was feted at the Center for Security Policy. The group’s founder, Frank Gaffney, is a conspiracy theorist who believes that Obama is part of a secret Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the U.S government, a scheme that also involves anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. He has been denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for peddling “anti-Muslim bigotry.” Gaffney’s views have a following in Trump Tower: Steve Bannon, the president-elect’s senior counselor, hosted Gaffney on his radio show dozens of times, and there were reports that he was brought in to advise the transition (though Trump’s team denied it). And Dermer praised him warmly, calling him a steadfast friend of Israel. “If you have enemies, Frank, it’s because you have stood up for something, many times in your life,” he said.
It is this kind of comment that gambles with Israel’s decades of unquestioned diplomatic and military support from Washington. Israel often claims that “shared values” unite it with America; how can it continue to do so if Israel’s top representatives embrace figures like Gaffney? It may not be an issue under Trump, but the Republicans, who lost the popular vote by a large margin, will not stay in power forever.
None of this has prompted public concern in Israel, however, where the governing class is looking optimistically toward the immediate future, and not beyond. “Who is Obama?” asked Miri Regev, the right-wing culture minister, in an interview on Wednesday with Channel 2. “Obama is history. We have Trump.”
Of course, Trump may yet disappoint his fans in Israel. If he doesn’t, though, Netanyahu is right: A “new era” is coming. But it will be an era in which the two leaders, aligned with the far right of the pro-Israel establishment, pursue policies that will erode Israel’s support in the U.S. and its standing in the world. The Israeli right may have an ally in the White House—but they will be in short supply elsewhere.