Opinion |

Trump-jolted Settlers Have a Doomsday Weapon vs. a Peace Plan: White Evangelicals

Just last year, the settlers thought they'd won it all, for good. And then, icing on their every cake, they got the president of their dreams. Or so they thought.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Seems like only yesterday. Or, anyway, last year.

Settlers thought the game was over. They'd won. They ran Israel. Settlement was irreversible. Peace talks dead and buried. The two state solution interred deep in a plot right alongside. They'd won.

Settlement advocates rewrote school books. They indoctrinated Israeli students going on trips abroad. They'd commandeered Orthodox Judaism worldwide. They defied the Supreme Court. They stonewalled the Supreme Court. They appointed the Supreme Court.

But even that wasn't enough for them. Not nearly. They had to win bigger. They had to reap even larger monetary and real-estate rewards for throwing rocks at soldiers and calling them Nazis. They made laws to legalize their own trespasses. They made laws to conflate Israel with Occupied Jim Crow Judea and Samaria.

The prime minister, who no longer had a say in anything, took orders from them like a fast food counterman, orders often muttered dismissively in the form of an ultimatum.

And then, last November, came the icing on the settlers' every cake. They got the American president of their dreams.

Or so they thought.

The dreams were clear: Unfettered, strongly subsidized settlement expansion. Stepwise annexation of the West Bank. Relocation of the American embassy as de facto recognition of sole Israeli rule over both the Jewish Western and Palestinian Eastern halves of Jerusalem. A green light to laws curbing equality, free speech, and minority rights. Final rejection of any form of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

It was in the bag, for God's sake. Just look, they noted with deep satisfaction, not only was the designated Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt a Modern Orthodox Jew, he makes his home in the world center of pro-settlement ardor, Teaneck, New Jersey. Game over.

Or not. Donald Trump, it turned out, had another idea.

Just three days after his election, the president-elect set as a central foreign policy goal of his administration, putting an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an agreement between the sides. "That's the ultimate deal," he told the Wall Street Journal.

"As a deal maker," he said, "I'd like to do the deal that can't be made. And to do it for humanity's sake."

Settler leaders, jolted and anxious, held intensive consultations, sought clarifications, wondered what this could mean. Last week, they got their answer.

Departing sharply from convention and expectation, Greenblatt visited a Palestinian refugee camp as well as holding meetings with a wide range of locals, Palestinian and Israeli students, residents of the Gaza Strip, senior Jewish, Christian and Muslim clerics, and, yes, settlement leaders.

To the horror of one-state rightists, the long-derailed peace train was showing signs of steaming up.

Analysts have given Trump little chance of succeeding where his predecessors have failed. But that is cold comfort to the settlement movement. Where Trump is concerned, the collective failures of analysts have proven to be spectacular.

It should also be noted that with all of the settlement movement's successes on the ground, for all that it has fueled and enshrined occupation for a half century, polls consistently show that it has yet to persuade the majority of Israelis to abandon the two-state solution, nor to hold the movement in anywhere near the esteem the movement lavishes on itself.

The settlers also know that their commanding position in the Netanyahu government is a function of how fragile the prime minister's rule may be.

Worse, there are signs that young people in settlements are leaving in increasing numbers for Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, and through it all, the settlers and their rightist supporters have one uniquely powerful secret weapon against Trump – literally a doomsday option: white Evangelical Americans.

Simply stated, without the votes of white Evangelicals, Donald Trump would not have become president.

The largest single religious grouping in the United States, evangelicals represent more than one of every four Americans. And 80 percent of White evangelicals – even more in certain key areas - voted for Donald Trump.

For decades, white Evangelicals, led by hugely influential clergymen, have been fiery, motivated, politically pro-active, high-profile supporters of the settlements.

Evangelical Pastor John Hagee's Christians United For Israel, which calls itself "the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States," claims 3.3 million members spanning all 50 states.

Where many Jewish organizations including AIPAC, are at least somewhat on record as favoring the longtime U.S. position of a two-state solution, CUFI is not. “Supporting Israel is not a political issue," Hagee has said. "It is a bible issue.”

So powerful has Hagee's organization become, a longtime CUFI official hinted earlier this year, that CUFI could soon begin to eclipse AIPAC as the go-to Israel lobby for Trump's new Washington.

Can the settlers rest easy, then, confidently counting on white Evangelicals as an impregnable firewall against a Trump-spurred peace process?

As crucial as white Evangelicals were to Trump's victory, the answer is far from a clear Yes.

The bottom line is that evangelicals, for all of their clout and activism, are far from a monolithic group, united in dogma and discipline.

They range from rigorously conventional churchgoers to the murky margins of the alt-right.

In recent years, as some white Evangelicals have come to know Christian Palestinian-American as members of their congregations, they have begun to alter their views and their activism on the Israel-Palestine issue.

One outgrowth is the pro-two-state Telos Group, whose website, not unlike the dovish J Street organization, features the slogan "Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Peace, Pro-American. All at the same time."

Moreover, if Trump should decide to go full speed toward a peace deal based on two states, the core of his core voters – themselves white Evangelicals - could well go right along with him.

As Peter Beinart noted in a recent Atlantic piece, "During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, 'Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.'"

In the end, the most important weapon in the settlers' anti-peace plan arsenal may be Trump himself.

Always in the background is the possibility, call it the settler's backstop hope, that Trump's famously brittle attention span and his need to score high-profile success, will cause him, sooner or later, to give up on Middle East peace as a bad risk.

For political reasons, noted Yedioth Ahronoth commentator Orly Azoulai last week, Netanyahu "will try to delay and buy time, because he knows that when something doesn't go according to Trump's plan, [Trump] will turn his back and go in search of a different toy."

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