Trump's Policy on Israel Turns U.S. Jewish Groups Topsy-turvy

Attitudes toward Trump have shifted: Leftist leaders are now cautiously optimistic about president's overtures to Palestinians, while some right-wingers are getting worried

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in the Roosevelt Room during a joint statement at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 3, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in the Roosevelt Room during a joint statement at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 3, 2017Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

When Donald Trump won the presidential election in November, a clear division emerged within the U.S. Jewish community, particularly the parts of it that are active and engaged on issues relating to Israel.

Right-wing groups, which support Israel’s settlements policy and oppose Palestinian statehood, expressed joy and optimism over Trump’s victory, based on his campaign promises to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and avoid pressuring the government. On the left, meanwhile, a sense of emergency took over, fueled by pompous declarations by senior right-wing politicians in Israel that Trump’s election meant the end of the two-state solution.

Today, six months later and just days before Trump is scheduled to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the picture has changed. Left-wing Jewish organizations that vowed bitter resistance to Trump are suddenly expressing cautious optimism about his Israel policy, saying they will support him if he proves to be serious about wanting to obtain a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. On the right, meanwhile, Trump remains popular but there are signs of worry and, in some quarters, even disappointment.

Haaretz spoke this week to seven heads or leading members of U.S. Jewish organizations active on Israel, on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. Some of the sources chose to speak on the record, while others asked not to be named, mainly, they said, in order not to diminish their access to the Trump administration. Nearly everyone agreed that while it was too early to draw final conclusions about Trump’s policy on Israel and the Palestinians, things were indeed moving in an unexpected direction.

On the left, one interesting example is J Street, which has become the largest dovish organization in the U.S. Jewish community. At its annual conference in Washington in early March, just over a month after the inauguration, succeeding speakers slammed Trump and his domestic agenda on issues such as immigration. J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, found parallels between Trump’s domestic policies and what Ben-Ami called the president’s “dangerous” rejection of the two-state solution. He declared that J Street would fight Trump on both fronts.

This week, Ben-Ami told Haaretz that while his organization’s general view of Trump “hasn’t changed,” J Street will support any serious peace effort pursued by the administration.

“Every administration in the last 50 years has taken steps to move in that direction,” Ben-Ami said, referring to a peaceful conclusion to the conflict. “If Trump begins to take steps that are in line with that policy, we’ll support it.”

Asked what he thought about Trump’s moves on Israel so far, Ben-Ami said “you have to give [Trump] a passing grade,” adding that “it’s more about things he hasn’t done then things he has.” Ben-Ami said one good step taken by the administration was Trump’s decision to visit Israel early in his presidency — and his insistence on including a visit to the Palestinian Authority and a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the short trip. “That’s the right thing to do,” Ben-Ami said.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami on a study tour in Israel.Credit: Courtesy of J Street

Another left-wing Jewish group that clearly indicates it would be open to supporting Trump on one specific issue — the peace process — is Americans for Peace Now. The group’s spokesman, Ori Nir, told Haaretz that “President Trump has repeatedly vowed to broker the ‘ultimate deal,’ as he depicts it. The question is whether he can muster the tenacity, patience and firmness, and to invest political capital, and stay with it for the long haul to seriously and credibly broker a deal. If he does, we’ll support him.” In a statement published earlier this week, the organization said it “commends” Trump for “his stated willingness to pursue [peace] as a broker or as a facilitator.”

These cautious offers of support from the left, however, are not unconditional. All the groups promising to give Trump their backing if he makes progress toward a peace agreement also say he still needs to prove he is serious about it — for example, by ending his reliance on vague language and saying explicitly that his goal is the creation of a Palestinian state coexisting in peace alongside Israel.

That was evident in a statement published two weeks ago by the Israel Policy Forum after Trump’s meeting with Abbas in the White House, which said, “while we would be heartened to hear President Trump explicitly endorse the two-state solution as the only viable path forward, more important is to create progress toward that goal. The president’s efforts in meeting with and listening to both sides, and demonstrating a willingness to help them return to meaningful negotiations, represent a good set of initial steps.”

On the right, meanwhile, Trump’s recent actions are causing a mix of confusion and, on different levels, some concern. A leading pro-Israel activist who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity told Haaretz that “some people are feeling this is not what they signed up for. It’s still much better than Obama, and probably better than what we would have had under Hillary Clinton, but the way Abbas was welcomed in the White House as a hero of peace, and the fact that the embassy move isn’t happening for now, are causing disappointment.”

The head of another organization affiliated with the right, however, said these feelings weren’t necessarily justified. “It really depends which parts of the right-wing you’re talking about,” he explained. “Obviously, people who thought that Trump and his team are going to be like card-carrying members of Gush Emunim, are going to be disappointed and concerned. That was never going to happen. As for more moderate right-wing supporters, people who are open to negotiations as long as its not done in a way that undermines Israel’s long-term security, I don’t think these people have much to worry about right now.”

Mort Klein is the president of the Zionist Organization of America, which was among Trump’s biggest supporters during the election campaign. Klein told Haaretz he hopes the president’s visit to Israel will lead Trump to realize that a peace deal cannot be made at the moment and encourage him to step away from the issue. “Abbas is paying terrorists to murder Jews and is naming streets and schools after murderers. Once Trump sees that with his own eyes, he will make the right decision,” Klein said.

Will he? Not everyone is convinced. One constant cause of concern on the right has been the Trump administration’s advisers on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. At first, complaints were raised about the decision to retain for three months after the inauguration Yael Lempert, the head of the Israeli-Palestinian desk on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. And this week a far-right website published a smear piece against Col. Kris Bauman, the U.S. Air Force officer who was chosen to replace her, over his involvement in the 2013-14 peace talks led by then-Secretary of State John Kerry.

“One thing has allowed Trump to avoid stronger criticism so far: his ambiguity,” one leading activist on the right told Haaretz. “It’s still early in the administration and he hasn’t presented a detailed policy. Once he does that, one side — either the left or the right — is going to freak out and feel disappointed. The only thing we don’t know yet is which one.”

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