On November 9, the day after the presidential election in the United States, Education Minister Naftali Bennett released a statement congratulating Donald Trump on his victory.
“The era of a Palestinian state is over,” Bennett glowed at the time. “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state… This is the position of the president- elect, as written in his platform, and it should be our policy, plain and simple.”
Other members of the cabinet joined the celebrations.
Likud Minister Ofir Akunis, for example, called to immediately increase settlement construction in the West Bank. Other ministers focused their praise on what they believed would be the imminent transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Looking back at what Bennett and other ministers said in November, it seems a lifetime ago, or more accurately as misplaced wishful thinking. Their comments in November came before Trump decided that he wanted to reach the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, before he decided not to move the embassy and before his administration decided that it couldn’t even refer to Jerusalem as part of Israel.
So what happened? Why the change? What happened to the Trump of the campaign? At the Knesset on Monday, Bennett tried to provide an answer. During a meeting of his Bayit Yehuda faction he hinted that it was Netanyahu who missed out on an opportunity to pressure or convince Trump into acting on his campaign promises.
Another possibility is that the praise by Akunis, Bennett and others boxed Trump in and that as a response he had to balance out his policies as president. The more likely possibility is what has happened to countless politicians before Trump – it is one thing to make a campaign promise; it is another to be president.
Whether Bennett is right or wrong about the cause of the so-called change in Trump, he is right that Israel might have had the opportunity to present the president with an alternative vision but didn’t. Instead, a vacuum was created in Washington and that vacuum was filled by what we are seeing now. Vacuums never stay empty for long.
Next week, the country will mark Jerusalem Day, celebrating half a century since the Six Day War when Israel conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula and reunified Jerusalem.
But since that time, Israel has, for the most part, decided not to decide. Prime minister Levi Eshkol annexed east Jerusalem immediately after the war in 1967 and even though it has been part and parcel of sovereign Israel since, Israelis still get bent out of shape the moment someone says it’s not.
Menachem Begin decided in 1981 to apply Israeli law to the Golan Heights, but today, 36 years later, Israel is still undecided about the territory it conquered from Syria. In February, for example, Netanyahu asked Trump to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said earlier this month that the issue should be on the main agenda for the visit.
While I recognize the opportunity the ongoing war in Syria provides for this to happen, why the insecurity? If the Golan is no different than any other part of Israel, why has the government never formulated a strategic plan to increase the Jewish population there, to create jobs and to improve the infrastructure? Even the highways on the Golan are the same two-lane roads from 50 years ago.
Where is our confidence? Why do we let every little comment and diplomatic insult blow up into a fullfledged crisis. The news, for example, about the low-level US Consulate official who said that the Kotel is not part of Israel broke the same day that the new US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, arrived in the country and immediately went to pray at the Kotel.
But instead, the news cycle was dominated by a leak – my guess from the Prime Minister’s Office – to Channel 2 about some low-level official involved in the logistics of the president’s upcoming trip who made an ignorant and imprudent comment. In other words, there is the picture of the new ambassador kissing the Western Wall versus an unnamed official saying something controversial.
I’m not saying Israel shouldn’t defend itself when it feels like it is under a diplomatic assault. On the contrary, it should. Nevertheless, the management of the country since Trump’s election – and even more so this week – has been like someone suffering from manic depression. When Trump was elected, people were ecstatic. But now that he is president and realpolitik has kicked in, the politicians have become depressed and appear to be in mourning.
The truth is that Trump never really changed, since he never really had a formulated worldview to begin with.
Like most things in life, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Yes, Trump has an affinity for Israel, but he also has limitations like all presidents before him – the need to ensure the stability of the US’s other allies in the region and to appear fair in his handling of the conflict.
While the incident with the low-level consulate official is infuriating, it is not anything different from what Israel has been hearing from the State Department for the last 50 years. The same applies to the way National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and press secretary Sean Spicer answered questions on Jerusalem’s status this week. Both men danced around the question, likely because their boss has yet to decide what the policy should be.
THERE IS though something deeper at play and this connects to the 50th anniversary the country will mark next week.
Even though half a century has passed since the Six Day War, Israel has yet to decide what it really wants.
It holds on to Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem that are outside the security barrier, even though almost every politician (even on the Right) agrees that Israel doesn’t need them. The reason – politicians are afraid of the political price they will pay if they say so. The same applies to the previous three Netanyahu governments: the prime minister says he wants a two-state solution but then doesn’t take steps to advance it.
I am not getting into who is to blame for the failure of the peace process – I believe it is the Palestinians – since that is not the issue. What I am referring to is government indecisiveness. The government should be providing a vision of what it wants and how Israel’s final borders should look. Instead, we hear one thing from Netanyahu and then end up seeing something else play out. There is no strategic vision.
Now, I get that this is a result of a number of factors – the so-called peace partner we have beside us, our chaotic political system and our constant fear of destruction.
Even with these constraints, coupled with the country’s growing polarization, the government can still take big, historic steps and should. Begin did that in 1979 when making peace with Egypt, Yitzhak Rabin did it in 1993 when signing the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon did it in 2005 when pulling out of the Gaza Strip.
All these moves were controversial; all were political minefields, but all ended up happening because when a prime minister wants something, he or she can get it done with the right political maneuvering. It might be hard, but it happens.
If Netanyahu wanted to annex all of the West Bank he could with the makeup of today’s coalition. If he wanted to freeze settlement construction and enter into peace talks with the Palestinians, he could as well, by changing his coalition.
But to do either, he would need to decide what he wants. After 50 years of almost everyone not deciding why should he suddenly be different? So instead of deciding what it wants, the government prefers to look over its shoulder and see what the world will tell us to do. It won’t annex the West Bank because the world would get upset, and it won’t enter into peace talks because it could shake up the coalition. Those are convenient excuses but neither provides an answer for what is right. What is in Israel’s interest? What is right for the country in its 70th year of independence? Fifty years after reunifying Jerusalem, Israel has never been stronger – socially, militarily and economically. If there is a time to lay out a vision it is now.