Yakov Blotnik, world-weary custodian of the synagogue in Philip Roth’s short story ‘The Conversion of the Jews’, has a simple outlook on life: “Things were either good-for-the-Jews or no-good-for-the-Jews”. The Blotnik Test confronts us as the new administration in Washington begins to take shape. We’ve just seen the first hints of what to expect at today’s joint press conference between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. The US president used to it to break with the US’s decades-old commitment to a two-state solution, insisting the arrival at a peace deal was more important than its details. “I’m looking at two states and one state,” he admitted. “I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
On the surface, this is a dramatic rightwards lurch for US foreign policy, the White House articulating a stance that divides even hawkish Israeli politicians. Several one-state solutions of varying plausibility have been advanced by Israeli rightists but all have this in common: Israel would be the sole sovereign west of the Jordan and the Palestinians would have to settle for autonomy instead of statehood. Most observers agree the Oslo Accords have been defunct for a number of years now but no one expected the President of the United States to tear them up live on CNN.
So what to make of it? Israel is the one area where everyone agrees on what Trump thinks and what he’ll do. He is an outspoken supporter of the Jewish state and seems a natural ally of Netanyahu and his Likud party. After eight years of the diplomatic cold shoulder — and a few dead arms — from the Obama White House, Israel can relax knowing its greatest ally is back onside.
This is a soothing thought for those who cherish the US-Israel alliance but it requires a huge leap of faith: That on this matter, unlike every other, Trump can be taken at his word. Bibi’s hasty hechsher might be good politics but what would Roth’s wizened shamash make of Trump? Is he good for the Jews?
His Jewish supporters point proudly to their man’s totemic pro-Israel policy — relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem. It’s an open wound in US-Israel relations that Washington’s mission is housed in Tel Aviv rather than the capital and Trump’s pledge gladdened the hearts of many when it was made.
Of course, we’ve been here before. On the campaign trail, presidents since Bill Clinton have promised to shift the embassy but next year in Jerusalem has never come. Barack Obama didn’t take the pledge, securing his 2008 AIPAC ovation by declaring Jerusalem the “undivided capital” of Israel, a proposition he plainly didn’t believe and worked manfully to undermine in office.
At least they waited a respectable period of time before ratting. Pressed for a timetable on moving the legation, Trump told Fox News in late January: “I don’t want to talk about it yet. It’s too early.” Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds reports that US officials have given Jordan an assurance the embassy will remain in Tel Aviv. Asked about a transfer at today’s press conference, Trump merely said he’d “love to see that happen” and that “we’re looking at that with great care, and we’ll see what happens”.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and leader of the nationalist Bayit Yehudi party, has proclaimed that “the era of the Palestinian state is over”. His confidence is not surprising given Trump’s nominee as ambassador to Israel. David Friedman, is described by the Guardian as a “hardline pro-settler lawyer” and in one of those cheerful coincidences that arise from time to time in the Guardian’s coverage of Israel, the report is more or less accurate. Friedman opposes a two-state solution and is a patron of Beit El, a West Bank community.
Bennett and his allies on the new Israeli right — young, free marketeer, straining at the diplomatic leash — want Israel to assert sovereignty over much of the West Bank. Earlier this month the Knesset took an initial step towards such an eventuality when it passed the Land Regularisation Bill, retroactively legalising 4,000 housing units built on privately held land in the disputed territories. Area C of the West Bank, administered by Israel, is governed by military law and the legislation is the first to extend civil instruments beyond the Green Line.
Trump’s seeming abandonment of a Palestinian state will embolden Israel’s national camp but they should treat their orange moshiach with more scepticism. There is no indication Trump wants to Make Israel Greater Again. In the first instance, ideology does not interest him; it’s too closely allied to ideas, long-term assets that can’t be dealt away. A man who declares “nothing beats the Bible, not even The Art of the Deal” is probably not wedded to scriptural injunctions on Eretz Yisrael. Wait till he finds out Judea and Samaria aren’t a pair of go-go dancers from Crown Heights.
True, his White House has announced that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, a welcome reversal of Obama-era hysteria over every new patio built in Ma’ale Adumim. But listen to Trump from earlier today: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out but I would like to see a deal be made.” And while the White House is trumpeting today’s meeting with Netanyahu, the Jerusalem Post reports that Trump despatched CIA director Mike Pompeo to Ramallah on Tuesday night to meet with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
Frustrated Israelis used to wonder where Obama stood on Israel. With Trump the question is: Where doesn’t he stand?
Trump has embraced the isolationists’ motto “America first” and laments the burden of US global leadership as “enrich[ing] foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidiz[ing] the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military… defend[ing] other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own”. These sentiments should alarm Israelis far more than his crass statement on Holocaust Memorial Day or the online enthusiasm for him amongst 12-year-old cosplay Nazis.
Barely a year ago, Trump identified himself as “sort of a neutral guy” on Israel and the Palestinians. During the campaign he postured as a bullish Zionist. Today, he speaks from both sides of his mouth. We will soon see which is the real Trump and if it is the disinterested dealmaker — and I suspect it is — Israel should not welcome a policy of benign neglect. Lurching from Obama’s spiteful obsession to cold indifference is a step change but not a step forward.
It cuts Israel adrift from its closest ally. Drift might be mistaken for independence, the freedom to set secure borders without State Department meddling. No one to tell you the Regularisation Bill is bad law and worse politics. (One may without contradiction believe Israel the rightful sovereign in Yehuda ve Shomron but deem its expropriation of private land offensive.) The end result, though, is Israel alone in a hostile world.
The US-Israel alliance is not only fundamental to the economic and military security of both countries; it is a cornerstone of the liberal world order, that structure of institutions and conventions that Trump so baldly disdains. The Jewish people have some experience with false prophets. However appealing Donald Trump’s words, it’s his actions that will ultimately pass or fail the Blotnik Test.
Stephan Daisley will be writing regularly for Coffee House. He is also a columnist with the Scottish Daily Mail.