Normally, American Jewish leaders would expect to feel quite positive about a new US President apparently more friendly to Israel than his immediate predecessor. But Donald Trump’s actions since his inauguration seem to have thrown many of them into a panic.
This is not entirely attributable to his antisemitic provocations, like his statement on Holocaust Memorial Day that carefully avoided any mention of the six million Jewish victims, or the presence of open antisemites like Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer in his political entourage. An unholy alliance with antisemites has always been at the heart of the Zionist project, with both sides sharing the goal of gathering the world’s Jews “where they belong”, in the eastern Mediterranean, and taking them away from countries where they actually live but where, apparently, they “do not belong”.
A majority of the USA’s “pro-Israel lobby” are not Jewish but so-called “Christian Zionists”, many of them Evangelical Christian fundamentalists who believe that a Jewish state, and Jewish emigration to it, are necessary to bring about the Second Coming of Christ. Following this, the Jews will either convert or perish in the ensuing Rapture and Armageddon. Thus, enthusiasm for Israel and support for its oppression of the Arab Palestinian people has always gone alongside quite hostile attitudes towards Jewish people at home. Donald Trump is hardly any different.
What has alarmed American Jewish leaders is the rhetoric from the White House about abandoning the “two-state solution”, that is, a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel in some, but not necessarily all, of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967. In this, Trump shares quite a lot with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has created similar alarm, both in Israel and in the USA.
Trump and Netanyahu
Both leaders are tough-talking, right-wing demagogues who rail against a “liberal establishment” that they blame for undermining their countries’ “greatness”. Both were elected on the basis of appeals to racist sentiments. Netanyahu effectively stole the votes of Israel’s extremist pro-settler parties with a video clip on the day of Israel’s March 2015 elections, warning that Israel’s minority-Arab citizens were “advancing on the ballot boxes in droves”, apparently having been “bussed out” to vote by “left-wing organisations” with the support of Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Both employ a virulent Islamophobia in the name of “anti-terrorism”, something also shared by Trump’s other new admirer in the region, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Both were quite vocally opposed to President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal and detente with Iran, which Israel still regards as its major regional rival. Now, both seem willing to place a bomb underneath the policy that has allowed Israel to continue its occupation of the 1967 territories for the last fifty years.
Two state illusion
The truth is that neither Israel nor the USA have ever had any intention of granting the Palestinians any meaningful independent state. That has already effectively been made impossible by the network of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and by the “separation barrier” (dubbed the “Apartheid Wall” by anti-occupation activists) that winds its way through the West Bank, cutting off whole communities from their adjacent lands and effectively annexing those lands to Israel.
In that respect, Trump and Netanyahu are merely bringing their countries’ official rhetoric into line with their actual practice. However, endlessly maintaining the pretence of a “peace process” supposedly moving towards “two states” has served a purpose for both Israel and its US protector.
For the USA, it provides a sop with which it can placate allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in a region whose populations instinctively side with the Palestinians. For Israel, it provides an alibi in the court of world public opinion, allowing it to continue the occupation and a relentless expansion of the settlements. At the same time, it blames “Palestinian terror” or intransigence for the failure of negotiations to produce a political solution while repressing the inevitable Palestinian resistance to this grim process.
The most coherent proposal that Trump has made so far is to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something that would effectively recognise Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967. In a much-ridiculed speech during a recent visit to Israel, Trump said: “So I’m looking at two states and one state. And I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
The problem for pro-Israel opinion in the USA is this: if there is to be no separate Palestinian state, then the effective situation is “one state” by default, as Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat pointed out in response to Trump’s claim that he was committed not to “two states” but to “peace”.
What would that “one state” look like? If it were to be a democratic state, then common citizenship for both peoples would mean an Arab-majority state, and the end of the “Zionist dream” of Israel as an emergency homeland-in-waiting for Jewish people across the world. The Zionist alternative would mean a “Jewish state” with an Arab majority denied voting rights or citizenship, subject to military occupation and in the process of being squeezed off their land and, ultimately, out of the country.
By letting the cat out of the bag, these two nationalist demagogues run the risk of ensuring that the only practicable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes precisely the nightmare of an Apartheid state in which Israeli state forces are permanently mobilised to suppress the Palestinian majority. Worse still, they are both capable of pursuing exactly this course.