Earlier this month, more than 10,000 Israelis turned out for demonstrations in Tel Aviv against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their purpose was to draw attention to corruption charges lodged against the prime minister. If he winds up being charged with a crime it will almost certainly mean that his fourth, and third consecutive, term in office will be his last. Or at least that is what his opponents are hoping, since if he does survive this latest threat to his hold on power, the events of the last three weeks are making it look as if he and or whoever it is that succeeds him as head of the Likud party and the coalition it leads is likely to emerge as the victor the next time Israelis head to the polls.
With Palestinians expressing “rage” about President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it appears that security and the peace process rather than corruption or the plight of the middle class is what will continue to determine the outcome of elections in the Jewish state. And so long as that is true, those American Jews who think Israel should be pressured into making concessions rather than supported need to understand the impact of Trump’s move and the Palestinian reaction to it on the Israeli public.
Trump’s willingness to make good at least in part on his promise about Jerusalem provoked some curious reactions among American Jews, the vast majority of whom are fervently opposed to his administration. For some, like the leaders of Reform Judaism, the commitment to the anti-Trump “resistance,” was more important than a president doing what generations of friends of Israel on both sides of the aisle had been hoping for. Their position—and that of many others on the Jewish left—was that nothing Trump did could possibly be good for the Jews. That makes sense to partisan Democrats, but it also puts them out of touch with the vast majority of Israelis who embraced the president’s announcement.
Yet the most important reaction to Trump came from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader Mahmoud Abbas.
No one expected the Palestinians to welcome Trump’s stand. But if Abbas were sincere about pursuing a two-state solution, he would have treated Trump’s carefully calibrated statement as a victory rather than a defeat. Trump did not endorse a united Jerusalem or preclude support for two states or even a re-partition of the city. Abbas could have used it as a jumping-off point for an effort to persuade the U.S. to endorse a Palestinian capital in part of Jerusalem, which would have strengthened his position in negotiations that Trump hoped to restart.
But instead he doubled down on the same anti-Semitic denial of Jewish history that has characterized Palestinian discourse for the last century. In a speech to an Islamic conference held in Turkey to protest Trump’s statement, Abbas claimed that only Muslims and Christians had any rights to the holy places in Jerusalem. Abbas’s hateful rhetoric and the PA’s resolve to use its broadcast and print media to incite violence against Israelis in the wake of Trump’s speech may be what he needs to do to survive against his Hamas rivals. But it is also confirming the solid consensus of opinion in Israel that stretches from the left to the right that views Abbas and the PA as opponents of peace, rather than potential partners as the country’s critics assert.
By trying to start another intifada and by doubling down on the notion that Israel has no rights in Jerusalem, Abbas has once again done something for Netanyahu that the prime minister could not achieve on his own. He has validated the Israeli right’s belief that, as bad as it is, the status quo is preferable than replicating Ariel Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. While many American Jews still believe Israel must be pressured to make territorial withdrawals for the sake of peace, Abbas’s conduct has convinced most Israelis such a policy would be insane. The fact that Netanyahu’s main rivals are more or less echoing his stands demonstrates that there is very little appetite in Israel for giving up more territory under the current circumstances. It also highlights the fact that so long as the alternatives to the Likud have nothing better to offer Israelis, it’s likely to stay in power.
What Trump did on Jerusalem gratified Israelis. But it also gave Abbas the opportunity to demonstrate to voters in the Jewish state that there is no viable alternative to Netanyahu’s policies. That’s something that American Jewish critics of Trump and Israel would be foolish to ignore.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.