Is Donald Trump the Friend Israel Needs?

“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect.” Thus President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted just before Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week. He added: “They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but …”

Mr. Trump was presuming to side with Israel in its regional fight, but … as Mr. Kerry implied, particularly when he spoke elegiacally of Shimon Peres, one cannot be a friend to Israel without actually being a friend to some Israelis over others, one conception of Israel, the region, and Jews, for that matter, over another. These are also Jewish culture wars — centered on Israel, but played out vicariously among American Jews — and Mr. Trump has stepped, or stumbled, into the thick of them. Nor do they affect Jews alone, given America’s web of relations in the region. One hopes and trusts that senior appointees to his foreign policy team will take notice.

Their job became more difficult last month when Mr. Trump’s transition team named David M. Friedman, his bankruptcy lawyer, as the next United States ambassador to Israel, soon after announcing an intention to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Mr. Friedman, a major fund-raiser for the Beit El settlement built on the hills around the West Bank city of Ramallah, would doubtless feel at home in Jerusalem, where I live for half the year. The mental atmosphere of Greater Israel is nested here and in its encircling settlements.

By contrast, he would barely know what to make of Tel Aviv, where the embassy is now. That city is the heart of what could be called “Global Israel,” a Hebrew hub in a cosmopolitan system.

Mr. Friedman’s allies in Israel’s right-wing Likud Party and its nationalist and Orthodox coalition partners see the land, including the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria, as holy. They regard any strategic territorial compromise entailing a withdrawal of Israeli sovereignty as sinful. In this respect, they benefit politically from the violence produced by the occupation.

Perhaps 40 percent of Jewish Israelis hold these attitudes, which imply others, such as theocracy over Supreme Court defenses of individual dignity, or privileges for Jewish citizens over Arab citizens, whose right to vote they consider provisional. A clear majority of these rightists want the release of Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. They see Europeans as anti-Semitic unless proven otherwise, Reform Jews as apostates, and Islam as terrorism’s gateway drug. Last week, the editor in chief of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, warned that Greater Israel zealots have moved to control the news media, schools, courts and army. “That means replacing the heads of cultural institutions and threatening a halt to government funding for those who don’t go with the flow,” he said.

People in Tel Aviv are cut from different cloth. Invite friends from Tel Aviv to dinner in Jerusalem, and they raise an eyebrow, as if you’re asking them to leave Israel for the ancient Kingdom of Judea.

The ethos of Tel Aviv — which runs, in effect, up the seaboard to Haifa — reflects the attitudes of another 40 percent of the Israeli Jewish population, which declares itself secular. One can slice the data many ways, but these Israelis see themselves as a part of the Western world and Israel’s Jewishness as custodianship of a historic civilization, not Orthodox rabbinical law.

Zionism, to them, means a culture. There may be a sentimental attachment to the rhetoric of Zionism’s insurgent period around independence: “redeeming” the land of Israel, “answering” the Holocaust, building a “majority” of people with J-positive blood, and so forth. But for most liberal Israelis, Zionism concretely means building a modern Hebrew-speaking civil society that can assimilate all comers.

There are some less liberal, who might call themselves “centrists.” They fear (or loathe) Arabs — about a third of secular Israelis would entertain expulsion — and have given up on the Oslo peace process, if not the two-state solution in the abstract. Yet they think the occupation, for which their conscripted children provide the backbone, should be run according to civilized norms. They fear (or loathe) settlers, too. In 2016, reflecting on the influence of the settlers, senior military and political leaders worried publicly about the growth of Israeli “fascism.”

America has coasts; Israel has a coast.

Which brings me to American Jews. According to the Pew Research Center, a clear majority, more than 70 percent, see themselves in shades of classical liberalism. Over 70 percent consider it a duty to remember the Holocaust; their significant concern for Israel — which about 40 percent profess — is seen in that light. Four-fifths do not keep kosher; nearly 60 percent say “working for justice and equality” is an integral part of their values (but then, more than 40 percent say “a sense of humor” is).

Ultra-Orthodox Jews burning leavened food before Passover near Tel Aviv. Oded Balilty/Associated Press
Ultra-Orthodox Jews burning leavened food before Passover near Tel Aviv. Oded Balilty/Associated Press

When not in Jerusalem, I live in New England. It is hard to find Jews who are not proudly erudite, emancipated, attending synagogue only sporadically, comfortable with intermarriage, identified with the Democratic Party. Liberal American Jews overwhelmingly support the two-state solution. Their largest political organization, J Street, welcomed the United Nations Security Council condemnation of settlements. They cannot imagine rallying to an apartheid Israel.

American Jews are more likely to identify with Philip Roth’s protagonists than with a figure like Mr. Friedman, who might have been a Rothian foil. Righteously Orthodox, he traffics in the pathos of anti-Semitism (he dismissed J Street supporters as “worse than kapos,” the Jewish trustees in Nazi concentration camps), mocks the Anti-Defamation League for criticizing anti-Semitic messaging in Mr. Trump’s final campaign ad, and has cozied up to Republicans for whom being pro-Israel is tantamount to being pro-guns on the world stage.

Institutions on the right of the organized Jewish American community like the Zionist Organization of America openly embrace the minority sentiments Mr. Friedman espouses.

“The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents profess neutrality,” J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, told me, “but their unwillingness to criticize Friedman or to defend critics of Israeli policies from attack put them in much the same space.”

In consequence of this rift, which has been long in the making, only about 30 percent of young American Jews polled in 2013 said that Israel plays a part in their lives. More and more, as the writer Peter Beinart noted, are becoming indifferent to Jewish community life altogether.

Mr. Trump’s professed friendship for Israel, then, brings an unexpected moment of truth. It will advance the cause of extremists in Israel, while making a majority of American Jews more skeptical of American policy and organized Jewish institutions — and no less skeptical of him.

Mr. Trump may feel he is discharging a personal debt to Orthodox neo-Zionists, who, alone among American Jews, disproportionately vote Republican. But Mr. Friedman will ultimately be accountable to the secretaries of state and defense, whose charge will be Middle East policy as a whole. Can they be expected to go along with the friendship program?

Soon after he left his post as head of Central Command, Mr. Trump’s choice for defense secretary, Gen. James N. Mattis, lamented that Israel was headed for “apartheid.” He has also questioned the price America has paid in the region for being identified with Israel’s actions. And, in the end, he endorsed the Iran nuclear deal.

The pick for state, Rex W. Tillerson, is a self-described risk manager, who spent his professional life at ExxonMobile managing huge upfront investments that would have to be recouped over a generation. What he has cared most about are the rewards of long-term stability, irrespective of a nation’s governing ideology or tyrannical behavior.

Mr. Trump reportedly complied with Mr. Netanyahu’s request to pressure Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to prevent the United Nations Security Council vote on settlements. Does it serve regional stability for Mr. Sisi to be seen as Mr. Netanyahu’s agent?

The more immediate risk to stability would be the embassy move. Of Israel’s neighbors, the most vulnerable state — and the most crucial to American interests — is Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom, which has signed a peace agreement with Israel, has long been on the defensive for its association with the United States. The country also shares a border both with Syria and the Islamic State and has accepted a million refugees from the Syrian war. Jordan’s capital, Amman, is by most reckonings majority Palestinian, including a substantial middle class and two large Palestinian refugee camps, which are decidedly less affluent. The residents of the camps have become increasingly receptive to radical Sunni jihadist ideas.

After the announcement about the embassy move, polls showed that 44 percent of Israelis thought Mr. Trump a “true” friend — but only 6 percent believed he’d make good on the promise. The skepticism is revealing. Both Israelis and Palestinians are alert to how violence in the occupied territories could spread; the distance from Amman to Jericho, in the West Bank, is roughly that from Newark Airport to Kennedy Airport. Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian public opinion expert, told me in December that an embassy move “could ignite the territories.” Is this the time for America to signal approval for Israel’s annexation of the whole of Jerusalem, merely to back the Israeli right’s symbolic claim?

Mr. Trump has heated up the Jewish culture wars and, inadvertently or otherwise, advanced fanaticism. His incoming national security team is made up of people who purport to be realists, so here are the facts: Safeguard American interests and, as a byproduct, you strengthen Israeli democracy; Israeli advocates of Greater Israel, and their American allies, subvert both.

Bernard Avishai, a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an adjunct professor of business at the Hebrew University, is the author of The Tragedy of Zionism and The Hebrew Republic.

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