Does the Jewish left really have a problem with a heartfelt reaffirmation of the alliance between the U.S. and Israel, rooted in America’s religious tradition, as expressed by Vice President Mike Pence in his speech to the Knesset?
By the same token, what exactly was the Jewish right doing applauding talk about more negotiations with the Palestinians and the U.S. not precluding a two-state solution that might re-divide Jerusalem?
The answer to both questions stems not so much from the text of Pence’s speech but in what the two sides of the political divide want from the United States.
For the Israeli left, Pence’s speech was further confirmation that, unlike when Barack Obama was president, they can no longer count on the Americans being a check on right-wing Israeli governments. For the right, Pence’s willingness, even in theory, to countenance two states and Jerusalem’s re-division might have outraged them. But coming from a member of the Trump administration, they think it’s irrelevant.
For American liberals, anything that either Trump or Pence does must be seen in the context of their need to "resist" an illegitimate administration. But what friends of Israel should be resisting is the impulse to import the U.S. culture wars and to treat largely anodyne restatements of support as threats.
For decades, the Israeli left has viewed American administrations as tacit allies in their battles to advance the peace process, even as Palestinian terrorism caused them to keep losing elections.
That alliance couldn’t have been clearer while Barack Obama was president. Obama saw it as his duty to prod the Likud-led coalition government the country’s voters had elected to do things it opposed and, in essence, to save the country from itself. But as Pence made clear, so long as Donald Trump sits in the White House, the United States has no interest in going down that road.
That is why supporters of the Netanyahu government ignored the opening that Pence, like Trump in his December speech on Jerusalem, offered the Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to blow up even the minimal remaining hopes for peace process with a January 14th rant that doubled down not only on his rejection of Trump’s gesture to Israel but on the rejectionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric that confirms the Jewish right’s belief that there is no peace partner.
But even after that, Pence was still holding open the door to more negotiations in which it is possible Trump might use the leverage he now has over Prime Minister Netanyahu to get the “ultimate deal” the president craves.
But neither Netanyahu nor his supporters have the slightest fear of that happening for two reasons.
One is their confidence that Abbas is incapable of giving up the century-old Palestinian war on Zionism. So long as Abbas is raging as much at Arthur Balfour and the existence of a Jewish state within any borders as he is at Donald Trump, Netanyahu has nothing to worry about.
The other is that they know that the base of the Republican Party is so fervently supportive of Israel that not even their affection for Trump would incline them to tolerate a policy of pressure on Israel. And that is precisely why some Jews are so distrustful of Pence’s speech.
To many on the left, Evangelical backing for Israel is a front for replacement theology in which Jews are props who can enable the return of the Christian messiah. That many, if not most, such religious conservatives don’t subscribe to this purely utilitarian view of Jews or Israel doesn’t lesson their distrust of Christian Zionism. Nor does the fact that any potential disappointment about the failure of the Jews to convert is meaningless if, as both religious and irreligious Jews think, you don’t believe Jesus is coming back.
Others dismiss Pence’s stance as mere posturing for a future presidential run. But while it’s certain he harbors such ambitions, the cynical view of the vice president doesn’t help us understand him or other evangelicals.
As anyone who has, as I have done, reported about and interacted with pro-Israel Evangelicals can attest, there’s no doubt about both the depth and the sincerity of their concern for the welfare of Israel and the Jewish people, whom they believe the Bible enjoins them to bless and warns them of the consequences of not doing so.
Disagree if you like with their positions on American politics, especially social issues, but doubting their good will toward Israel is a function of political animus and possibly prejudice, not rational analysis.
Due in part to these religious conservatives, over the last half century the two American political parties have switched identities when it comes to Israel.
Once lockstep supporters of Israel, a Democratic Party that is heavily influenced by its left wing and notions of intersectionalism, is now divided about Zionism. By contrast, the Republicans who were once lukewarm about Israel are now nearly unanimous in their devotion to its cause and antipathy to its opponents.
The current Republican ascendancy in Washington means an end to the daylight Obama created between the U.S. and Israel. No one should count on this lasting forever.
But rather than lamenting the Evangelicals’ stance, even Israeli leftists should appreciate the affection Pence and his fellow conservatives hold for their country and understand that if they are ever to prevail, it must happen as a result of their own efforts and not American intervention.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin