President Trump’s visit today to Judaism’s sacred Western Wall was part of a 28-hour Holy Land tour meeting with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The president has alluded to an “ultimate deal” between the two sides, but without dramatic (and unlikely) changes to Israel’s domestic politics, the Jewish state cannot make significant compromises. So to whatever extent Trump fancies himself a peacemaker, he hasn’t got a prayer.
Given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s well-known dislike for Trump’s predecessor, and the fact Netanyahu leads the right-of-center Likud Party, it’s easy for Americans to consider him a conservative. Which he is. But in the context of current Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s voice is decidedly centrist, at best.
The weight of gravity in Israeli politics has shifted dramatically rightward in the last two decades, probably because of Israeli disillusionment over the prospects for a land-for-peace deal given the continued violence, especially coming out of post-withdrawal Gaza.
The 2015 elections produced a coalition in Israel’s Knesset between Likud and four other parties, including the Jewish Home party. It represents the Orthodox religious Zionist sector of Israeli society – strong supporters of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. Just as important, Netanyahu’s Likud itself contains many legislators who fiercely oppose any compromise with the Palestinians.
Their votes are off the table if Netanyahu wants to pass a Trump peace deal, and he would thus need to rely on left-of-center legislators – which would cement suspicions in his own party that he’s not really one of them. (Nor can he rely upon his coalition parties representing haredim, the non-Zionist segment of Israeli Orthodoxy).
Israelis love Trump. After his election (I’m a dual citizen living in Jerusalem) many of them, upon hearing my accent, went out of their way to praise the president-elect. But their enthusiasm, and that of many right-of-center American Zionists, seems misplaced. A peacemaker can’t declare a victory (and Trump loves victories) unless he convinces each side to abandon cherished positions.
And the large bloc of voters and legislators to Netanyahu’s right aren’t budging. In fact, many believe Israel has already compromised too much, and should actually move in the other direction. As one settlement leader told me, “The compromise is they have 22 states and we have only one.”
Perhaps their fantasies are right and the United States will force the Palestinians to accept a lopsided solution, but the signs point in the other direction. President Trump has already dropped his promise to quickly move Israel’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his vocal support for the settlement project is now barely a whisper.
If conservative Knesset members ever expected Trump to ride into Jerusalem on a white donkey with a plan for full Israeli security and hegemony in lands captured during the 1967 war, by now they should know better. Yet several used their opportunity to greet Trump upon his arrival today as an opportunity to lobby him on the embassy, or in one case to misrepresent an early-morning traffic accident as a potential terror attack.
Israel’s far right wants to noodge President Trump even further right, when Trump will almost certainly end up noodging them leftward, given that diplomacy involves compromise.
Netanyahu can’t endorse a Trump deal his allies on the right won’t accept, and the Palestinians can’t endorse a Trump deal those same allies will accept. So where does that leave us?
The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, is known for his remark that if you really believe in something it’s no fairy tale. Well, no matter how intensely Israel’s rightist camp believes Trump will protect them, they’re soon going to realize the emperor has no clothes.