U.S. Vice President Mike Pence gave one of the most unabashedly Zionist speeches – perhaps sermon is the better word - ever heard in the Israeli Knesset, and not just by a foreign statesman. Views and reviews of the extraordinary speech, therefore, will be in the eye of the beholder. For Israelis, it was as ringing an endorsement of the Zionist enterprise as one could pray for, as well as an unapologetic affirmation of practically unconditional U.S. support. 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.
For Palestinians, however, the speech was a slap in the face, an insult added to injury, a confirmation, if any was needed, that they shouldn’t expect any respect from U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. Pence not only extolled Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, which Israelis cheered and Palestinians jeered, he recounted the story of the rebirth of Israel as God’s will and testament, as if there were no Palestinians. He empathized with Israelis who have paid a “terrible price” for war, but failed to even acknowledge half a century of occupation, never mind its hardships.
Pence paid lip service to the peace process and called on Palestinians to rejoin negotiations, but added that the U.S. would have no position on any aspect of their preferred outcome. By recognizing Jerusalem, Pence said, Trump had “chosen fact over fiction,” a rationale that can easily be used one day to support the full annexation of the West Bank as well.
Small wonder then that the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of pro-settler diplomacy, Ambassadors Ron Dermer and David Friedman, gazed approvingly at Pence from the Knesset bleachers, kvelling at his picture-perfect confirmation speech. Small wonder that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was smiling like a groom at the wedding, showing off his trophy bride for all the world, and especially Israeli public opinion, to marvel at. Small wonder that the coalition between American Evangelicals, Jewish settlers, the national religious movement and Likud right wingers who oppose Palestinian statehood – and refuse to recognize their nationhood – celebrated one of its finest hours. The knights of “the bible and the sword,” as Barbara Tuchman called her book about the growth of British pro-Zionism before Balfour, first took Jerusalem, then Washington DC as well.
Pence not only talked the talk that was music to right-wing ears, he came up with some tangible crowd-pleasers as well. He made real news by pledging that the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv will be moved to Jerusalem by the end of 2019. He reaffirmed earlier news by asserting that Donald Trump would no longer certify the “disastrous” Iran nuclear deal. And he concocted some very skewed history, by declaring that Trump had done more for bilateral ties than any U.S. president, ever. By Pence’s account, apparently, Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital eclipses Truman’s recognition, Kennedy’s defensive weapons, Johnson’s offensive weapons, Nixon’s life-saving airlift in 1973, Carter’s peace with Egypt, Reagan’s strategic MOU, Bush the First’s decimation of Iraq, Clinton’s peace with Jordan, Bush II’s stalwart support and Obama’s long term defense treaty. In the year of our lord Twitter in 2018, words are stronger than deeds, especially if they’re Trump’s.
The Knesset gave Pence numerous, bipartisan standing ovations, with only the Arab Joint List marring the occasion with a brief protest that got them ejected forthwith from the Knesset plenum. Right-wingers were overjoyed with Pence’s Evangelical recitation of Jewish history and rights that would be considered a bit over the top even in some Likud forums. The center-left opposition, meanwhile, had no choice but to grin and bear it, though many of its members privately believe Trump’s one-sided recognition of Jerusalem, which enjoys wide support in public opinion, has effectively derailed any hope for a resumption of the peace process.
Never mind that much of the vice president’s other hard-right, anti-gay, religion-over-state beliefs are the kind that the secular opposition regularly condemns when voiced by Israel’s homegrown Jewish fundamentalists.
Pence’s visit, which enjoys Israeli media coverage that is as wide as the U.S. media’s interest in the vice president is minimal, came as a political shot in the arm for Netanyahu. Not only can he boast of an unprecedented meeting of the minds with the Trump administration, but the hoopla around Pence shifts the public agenda, at least for a brief respite, from both the criminal investigations against Netanyahu and the growing public outrage, which encompasses much of the Likud’s own base, at recent ultra-Orthodox efforts to shut down groceries on Shabbat. Given his positions in American culture wars, Pence would most likely side with the devout.
This is undeniably a moment of triumph for the religious right, in both countries. Pence may have exaggerated Trump’s contribution to bilateral relations but there is no denying that there has never been such a total meeting of the minds between the leaderships of both countries, such identical religious and ideological viewpoints. Israel and America are now the right wing world’s power couple, albeit one that most people won’t warm to.
It remains to be seen whether Pence’s speech will be remembered as a positive milestone in Israeli history or as loony sprint in what Tuchman may have described as the Middle East’s Marathon of Folly. Seeing the bliss in the Knesset, however, one could be excused for imagining that at the end of Pence’s speech, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – or of the Trumpocalypse, as one book put it – could be seen galloping around the Knesset, the Seven Trumpets were heralding imminent deliverance and Gog and Magog were prepping for action, camouflaged by all the hubris.