Opinion

The Damning Silence at the Heart of Mike Pence’s Speech in Jerusalem

Bluster, Bible and platitudes: Pence’s Knesset speech fed Israel’s delusional right-wing what it wanted to hear, while scaling new heights of sycophancy to Trump. But he couldn't hide the U.S. policy emptiness at its core

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 22, 2018
ARIEL SCHALIT/AFP

Vice President Mike Pence’s speech to the Knesset wasn’t as bad as I feared. But mostly it was a reminder of why Israel’s left is disillusioned and Israel’s right is delusional. 

Two themes predominated. 

Pence gave a date for moving the U.S. embassy to West Jerusalem.  This will happen next year, and is a move that I support. And he promised that the U.S. will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. This too is a welcome commitment, even absent an explanation of how this might be accomplished. 

I can understand how right-wing Jews might welcome these assertions.  But then again, a good number of Jews from the center and left, in both Israel and America, will welcome them as well. 

But beyond that, Pence gave a reasonably careful and cautious speech. 

Settlement building was not endorsed, even by implication. Despite Pence’s evangelical credentials and the plethora of Biblical quotations, whole-land-of-Israel rhetoric was noticeable by its absence. In my reading, there wasn’t the slightest hint that America would support or encourage annexation of Palestinian territories. 

And emphatic and repeated references to the need for peace made it clear that the American administration is not satisfied with the political status quo.  Pence, like U.S. President Donald Trump, used the phrase “two-state solution,” even if he did so in a less than whole-hearted way. Trump, apparently, is still dreaming of “the ultimate deal” that will bring peace to the region and an end to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

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

So why in heaven’s name was the right in Israel so exhilarated by Pence’s words?

Some, I suspect, carried away by the tone but missing the substance, were simply reading into his remarks things that he did not say.  And many, of course, remembering how much they despised Barack Obama, were expressing yet again their relief that the Obama years are behind us.  And they did so even though — yes, it is true — much of Pence’s message could have been, and was, articulated in one form or another by the Obama administration.

My advice to the right: Don’t get carried away by your enthusiasm for the vice president. Don’t forget that Trump, not Pence, is the boss, and that Trump may profess to love Israel today, but he is erratic, inconsistent and utterly unpredictable. 

And don’t forget, too, that there will be life after Trump, and it may come, not in the person of Mike Pence, but in a president far less sympathetic to Israel. 

Mike Pence visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, January 23, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

And that brings us to the problem of the left. The center and the left should find comfort in the fact that the vice president refrained from giving a green light to the obsessive expansionism of the settler movement. And they should be pleased that Pence reiterated America’s desire for peace talks and a peace agreement. Yet how is this peace to come into being? 

Nothing that Pence said, or that the president has done, suggests that this administration has anything resembling a practical plan to move peace forward. Increasingly, the Trump Middle East “peace team” seems more like a crew of bumbling amateurs than serious diplomats with a vision and a plan. 

If the president wants to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, fine.  It is an appropriate first step. But it is logical and necessary to follow it up with a strategy for American leadership in the region. If a glimmer of hope still existed that such leadership might emerge, Pence’s silence served to extinguish it.

In fact, much of what the vice president had to say seemed bizarrely disconnected from reality. For example, he talked of meeting with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, “America’s great friends.” But these great friends are, in fact, in serious distress. Egypt is beset by corruption, profound economic problems and political dysfunction. It is in serious danger of collapse.  And Jordan is overwhelmed by refugees, demographic tensions and political and economic problems of its own. 

Pence visits the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2018.
RONEN ZVULUN/AFP

And all of this is without even mentioning Israel’s demographic issues that are fast turning it into a binational state, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dodges investigations and pretends that the occupation doesn’t matter to him or to the world.

How is all of this to be addressed, Mr. Vice President? How can America assure Israel’s security and well-being if America does not take the lead in matters such as these? Terrorism is a problem, of course, and so too is Iran. But more than bluster on terrorism and Iran is required of America right now.    

Let us be honest: Real concern for Israel and for peace must mean policy and not platitudes. When it comes to the Middle East, what is needed at the moment is security for Israel, compassion for the Palestinians and American activism and engagement in a deeply troubled region that is desperate for responsible American leadership. 

Mr. Pence, your speech wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t good enough. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie