In the days since the first announcement of the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to begin negotiations about normalizing ties, the anger the deal has provoked in the settler movement has only grown.
Though Netanyahu’s move is broadly popular, since it illustrates how barriers between Israel and the Arab world are crumbling despite the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, the settlement movement is primarily focused on the blow it dealt to their hopes for legally incorporating the settlements into Israel.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s crowing about his diplomatic triumph is salt in the wounds of settlers who care a lot more about his decision to “temporarily” suspend implementation of plans to extend Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements. Always suspicious of Netanyahu’s fidelity to the Land of Israel ideology, settler leaders vented their disgust at the ease with which he has slithered out of the promises he made to voters about the settlements.
Samaria Regional Council chair Yossi Dagan spoke about Netanyahu’s “stab in the back,” as well as the prime minister’s deceptions and cynicism that have destroyed any trust the “national camp” might have had in him. Echoing these views was David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the Yesha Council of West Bank mayors, who similarly lamented the “loss of a historic opportunity” to annex the settlements that may well vanish next January if President Donald Trump is beaten by former Vice President Joe Biden in the U.S. presidential election.
Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett — whose recent rising poll numbers showed the lack of confidence among many on the right with Netanyahu’s recent performance — also spoke of the prime minister having “missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to annex while an unusually friendly president was in the White House.
When settler leaders and the likes of Bennett and his party colleagues are angry about something, Jewish right-wingers in the United States usually echo those concerns. But for the most part, reactions to the Israel-UAE agreement demonstrated that there is something more important to them than even the settlements: the political fortunes of President Trump.
Given how much effort right-wing Jews put into the debate about extending sovereignty, you’d have thought their disappointment about his tabling the move in payment for the coup with the UAE would have been hard to contain.
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Yet contain it they did. In the days after the White House announcement of the historic agreement, they joined in the general rejoicing about the Emirates’ willingness to normalize relations with Israel. Though few can have much doubt about the fact that their hopes for the settlements are not so much postponed as shelved for the foreseeable future, Netanyahu’s concession was an afterthought to most of them.
The Zionist Organization of America, a reliable an indicator of the Jewish right’s views, began its press release on the issue with a headline saying “ZOA Thrilled.” “Concern About Temporary Suspension of Sovereignty Issue” was relegated to secondary status.
This sentiment was widely shared on the Jewish right, which seemed to react to the possibility of an Israeli exchange of ambassadors and increased trade with the UAE with enthusiasm barely diminished by any worries about the settlements.
Why the disconnect with the Israeli right? The answer has everything to do with their feelings about the Trump administration.
While liberals still labor under the delusion that support for Trump may be waning among his Jewish supporters, they are as devoted to his re-election as ever. Indeed, they view the Israel-UAE agreement as just one more piece of evidence that Trump is uniquely good for the Jewish state. Moreover, they fear that a Democratic victory in November will herald a return to the Obama era when “daylight” between the two countries was the order of the day – as opposed to the current administration’s belief in close relations.
Politics has reduced the American people to two warring tribes, who read, listen, and watch different news media and no longer credit each other with good intentions. In that sense, Jewish Trump supporters are behaving the same way as everyone else — including Biden’s backers — in that they dismiss arguments about the president’s unfitness and shortcomings while seizing on anything that can be interpreted as a triumph for his policy.
Trump’s detractors may argue that the UAE decision had little to do with him.
But it matters to his pro-Israel voters because they primarily see it as a vindication of his rejection of Obama’s focus on land-for-peace deals and the widely shared assumption by the left that Israel can never prosper or achieve normalization with the Arab world until peace is achieved with the Palestinians via a two-state solution. Trump’s “peace to prosperity” scheme is, at its heart, merely another attempt to create a Palestinian state, albeit with less interest in gratifying their ambitions or respecting their sensibilities. But since Trump has chosen to avoid pressure on Israel and has, unlike Obama and Biden, no interest in “saving Israel from itself,” the Jewish right regards his presidency as both historic and worth saving.
Anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, as well as some Obama veterans, like former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, are decrying or minimizing the importance of the deal or have suddenly developed an interest in human rights in the Gulf States. But that is a function of their own partisan sentiments – and also a signal to Jewish right-wingers that they should embrace the decision.
It’s also possible that many Jewish supporters of Trump are sensible enough to understand that annexation would change very little on the ground for the settlements or for Israel, while normalization with the Arab world is a huge boost for the Israeli economy and a body blow to Palestinian ambitions and the campaign to isolate the Jewish state.
But at its heart, the celerity with which the annexation project has been abandoned speaks to the conviction that supporting Trump is, at least for the moment, more important than the settlements. This is a moment when debates about race, the Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic have further divided American society. Those on the Jewish right now see Trump’s survival as being as being as vital to their basic interests as those on the left believe his defeat to be essential to what they consider the best interests of Jews and the national as a whole.
At such a time, the Israeli settlement movement would be foolish to expect their American supporters to turn on Trump just at the moment when right-wingers are more convinced than ever that they must stand by him.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.