Opinion

Netanyahu Is a Master at Keeping His Own Messianists in Check. But Could He Handle a President Pence?

The Zionist movement was always wracked with self-doubt, and Israeli prime ministers have always been pragmatists; Netanyahu is no exception. That's why a combination of blind faith fundamentalists in power in Israel and the U.S. would be so dangerous

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump points toward then-Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana after Pence's acceptance speech during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. July 20, 2016
Mary Altaffer/AP

The new Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem is not a museum in any normal sense of the word. There is no collection of artifacts around which you can meander at your own pace. Visitors must turn up at a fixed time and be conducted through the exhibit by guides in a preordained fashion. You are told exactly where to stand and how long to linger at each station. Naturally, I was scolded by the guide for trying to deviate.

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You take a lift up to the fourth floor and descend through a series of sealed rooms, lit up by three-dimensional displays and floor-to-ceiling touch screens. It is a fixed, black-and-white narrative, beginning with a map of the biblical land of Israel, slowly growing on both borders of the Jordan, with the territorial birthright of each of the twelve tribes mapped out. A cartoon Abraham communes with God and sets out to inherit the land.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the Western Wall with Western Wall Heritage Foundation Director General Mordechai Elias and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch. Old City of Jerusalem. January 23, 2018
RONEN ZVULUN/AFP

The next rooms are devoted to the darkness of exile, repression and Holocaust, followed by those wonderful points of light, the Friends of Zion, brave Christians who prayed for the return of the Jews to their land, saved them from the Nazis and supported Zionism. 

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There is no doubt at the museum, no questions or alternative narratives. Just blind certainty. The Friends of Zion is the brainchild of Mike Evans, a 70 year-old evangelist with improbable jet-black hair and the author of dozens of bestsellers.

At the entrance to the museum, are photographs of recipients of the annual Friends of Zion award - the most recent one was U.S. President Donald Trump - standing at the front, along with his Evangelical colleagues, is Vice President Mike Pence. Evans was part of Pence's entourage on his visit this week to Israel. 

Pence's two days in Zion will be remembered for the religious tone of the visit, the reams of scripture in his Knesset speech (supplied apparently by Lord Professor Chief Rabbi Emeritus Jonathan Sacks) and the typical way in which female journalists were forced to stand behind their male colleagues when Pence prayed at the Western Wall.

King Abdullah II of Jordan and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Amman, Jordan, Jan. 21, 2018
Raad Adayleh/AP

Personally, I'm neither surprised nor scandalized by either. The Old Testament is a beautiful text, and better fodder for a speech than any other cliche, and I've complained here before about the gender-segregation antics of the "Kotel Rabbi" Shmuel Rabinovitch. Nothing new here. 

What struck me about Pence however was a scene from the short visit he paid to Jordan, before landing in Israel. King Abdullah sat across from him, speaking at length of his concerns at the Trump administration's unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the high-handed manner in which it has approached the Palestinian issue. 

Say what you like about Abdullah, he is a Western ally and comes from a line of shrewd kings who have survived for nearly a century by maintaining their precarious balance between more powerful neighbors. His worries should, at least, be taken in to account.

I looked at Pence's face while Abdullah spoke, and perhaps I imagined it, but that slight smile of derision at the corners of his mouth looked just like the one you see on the face of a rabbi when confronted with an earnest atheist. He knows the truth, but he's polite enough to humor you as you try to convince him. "We agreed to disagree," Pence said dismissively after. True believers are never perturbed. 

There is nothing new, or wrong of course, about religious people playing pivotal roles in politics or diplomacy. Faith can inspire and motivate, but blind faith is dangerous. It's blind.

Most Israeli and American critics of the love-fest between our current government and Christian Evangelicals dwell on their hardline ultra-conservative evangelist values and end-of-days Armageddon hallucinations some of them harbor.

Karen Pence, the wife of US Vice President, waves to people after shopping at a jewellery shop in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. January 23, 2018
THOMAS COEX/AFP

I'm not that worried about any of those. Everyone is entitled to their illusions. God, Jesus, Elijah the Prophet, Moshiach Ben David or the Lubavitcher Rebbe are not about to descend from the heavens to deliver fiery justice or rebuild the Temple, but if you believe it may happen, good for you. Nothing wrong with believing.

It's the certainty that's scary. 

For all its achievements in founding a state, the Zionist movement and its leaders were always wracked with self-doubt. Should the Jews in the 20th century strive for a cultural or nationalist renaissance? Was Zionism's priority political recognition by the world or physical presence on the land? What came first, statehood or a safe haven?

These were essentially secular debates, dictated by the need for pragmatism. With Zionism fulfilled in 1948, Israel's prime ministers have to a man (and one woman) been ruthless pragmatists. Even romantic dreamers like Shimon Peres and steadfast ideologues such as Menachem Begin, made pragmatic decisions under the crunch. 

Benjamin Netanyahu is no different. An elitist atheist-nationalist, he has navigated pragmatically throughout his political career with a disparate coalition of underdogs, misfits and true believers, bending them to his will.

US Vice President Mike Pence (L) attends a welcome ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 22, 2018.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Paying lip-service to the rabbis and lavishing government funds on them, he has remained as secular as ever. He hasn’t made any real concessions to the Palestinians, while at the same time never annexing an additional inch of contested occupied territory and quietly reining in major settlement-building, despite the demands of his government colleagues.

He believes in the status quo, in the power of markets and geopolitics, and keeping his messianists in check. Netanyahu is a master at fostering the believers’ illusions while never actually allowing them to materialize.

Don’t be fooled by Bibi’s embrace of Pence and his pastors. He has even less interest in their doctrines than in the laws of kashrut he has never abided by. He is convinced he can harness their unquestioning support of his Israel to his political and diplomatic advantage, just as he has done with his own domestic Jewish fundamentalists.

So far it’s working for him. But can Netanyahu ride this tiger as it gets more powerful and could, potentially, begin to dominate American foreign policy under a President Pence?

For all his tough rhetoric, Netanyahu doesn’t want to go war with anyone. He is Israel’s most risk-averse politician. And he would like to see both the Palestinian Authority and the Hashemite Kingdom persevering, as weak and compliant collaborators in maintaining the regional balance and is wary of pushing them beyond their breaking-point.

However, the combination of the American true believers and their emboldened Israeli counterparts could prove too potent for even a cynical pragmatist like Netanyahu to hold back. The Friends of Zion may yet be the undoing of his status quo.