Not long ago it seemed that the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority were eager to negotiate a peace deal. Secretary of State John Kerry’s leadership of this effort from July 2013 to April 2014 will likely never be matched by the Trump administration. Over a period of nine months, Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy raised eyebrows amidst strained relations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama as he attempted to chart a proposal through almost a hundred meetings between Palestinian, Israeli, and American negotiators. The effort ultimately proved fruitless; yet it remains instructive.
Five months into the talks and after repeated leaks of intense discussions among the negotiators, the most scathing assessment came from Moshe Ya’alon, then Netanyahu’s Defense Minister. On January 14, 2014, he said “the American security plan presented to us is not worth the paper it’s written on,” and that the Secretary was “acting out of incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling, cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.”
Ya’alon’s remarks were not unnoticed by the American team. The mutual disdain between Obama and Netanyahu had, by that point, fueled several instances of such derogatory public comments by Israeli officials. While Ya’alon quickly apologized, his words soon proved a harbinger of the negotiation’s death. After all, no deal could materialize without the Defense Minister’s approval. Moreover, Israeli approval of 14,000 illegal settlement units during those nine months of shuttle diplomacy undermined the confidence of the Palestinian negotiating team. Kerry himself admitted toward the end of his effort that the settlements approval was a “cloud” that made it “very difficult for any leader to deal under.”
Today, it seems that roles have been reversed. The U.S. is indeed on a messianic mission – only of a different kind – and, this time around, Israel could not be any more supportive. This is especially so in light of the Trump administration campaign to upend fact with biblical prophecy and the stuff of fantasy.
Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Knesset on January 22, 2018, is only the latest display of his evangelical Christian worldview as it relates to Israel.
FROM CUFI TO THE KNESSET
It may be difficult to digest America’s resort to pseudo-biblical literalism to engage with one of the world’s thorniest issues, laughable even. But, in Pence’s case, it is hardly a surprise. Last summer, he spoke at the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Summit. CUFI, a pro-Israel grassroots organization, was founded in 2006 and is led by evangelist John Hagee, a friend of Pence who is infamous for his xenophobic and end of times preaching. According to its website, the organization works to transform millions of Christians into an effective force for Israel.
At both the Knesset and CUFI, Pence’s remarks were strikingly similar. These lines appeared almost word for word in both speeches:
At CUFI: “And the State of Israel and her people bear witness to God’s faithfulness, as well as their own.”
At the Knesset: “The Jewish state of Israel, and all the Jewish people, bear witness to God’s faithfulness, as well as your own.”
At CUFI: “How unlikely was Israel’s birth, how more unlikely has been her survival, and how confounding, against the odds, has been her thriving.”
At the Knesset: “How unlikely was Israel’s birth; how more unlikely has been her survival. And how confounding, and against the odds, has been her thriving.”
At CUFI: “The Jewish people have turned the desert into a garden, sickness into health, scarcity into plenty, despair into hope, and slander into blessings.”
At the Knesset: “You have turned the desert into a garden, scarcity into plenty, sickness into health, and you turned hope into a future.”
Laced with such biblical references and long propagated myths about Israel’s history and present, the speech was far from a political statement or standard “talking points.” Rather, it was a deeply personal and religious homily. Pence positioned himself as the intermediary of prophecy, bearing witness to God’s grand faithfulness in fulfilling his promises, including the promise of the land of Israel to the Jewish people. As he told CUFI congregants, “my passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith,” a view shared by Hagee, who believes that it is not possible to be a Christian without supporting Israel.
For all that, Pence is not oblivious to religious liberty. Just a day earlier, before his speech at the Knesset, he circumvented comments by the King of Jordan on Jerusalem “as key to Muslims and Christians, as it is to Jews,” by lauding Jordanian commitment to “religious diversity.” But, when it comes to Israel, Pence has no qualms about religious diversity, or lack thereof. At best, he is indifferent to ensuring equal religious freedom for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike in the holy city.
Indeed, as soon as he began speaking at the Knesset the following day, Pence, like Netanyahu, appeared indifferent to the forceful removal of Palestinian-Israeli lawmakers from the chamber. It was the same indifference the administration displayed in response to the heads of local churches in Jerusalem advising against changing the status of the city. It’s the same indifference that has led America to turn a blind eye to Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. It’s the same indifference that makes Palestinian life expendable.
FROM FANTASY TO REALITY
The reality is far from evangelical imagination. With more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, the continued occupation and illegal settlement expansion, as well as a slew of recent anti-Palestinian legislation, Israel is neither a miracle nor a heavenly place. In fact, with Israel’s rightwing government now emboldened more than ever to achieve its long-awaited maximalist land-grab, the only place Israel is headed for is entrenching its apartheid regime. In this fight, the United States may be the only loser, as it once was when it fell behind the world and dragged its feet instead of opposing the South African apartheid regime – assuming the international community comes to the aid of Palestinians.
…peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
After nearly a quarter century of American-led “peace-making” the Palestinians have no illusions about the United States’ role. “The alternative is not deadlock. The U.S. could be substituted or replaced,” said Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian chief diplomat in Washington. The Trump administration may believe that by taking Jerusalem off the table, a breakthrough is still possible. To this understanding the Palestinian Authority responded the administration “took the table altogether.”