Mike Pence’s big Israel speech could have been the keynote address at a Likud party conference. The only required tweak would be to make it a bit less frum.
Not even Israel’s ultra-Orthodox politicians refer to so much scripture when they stand up in Knesset, and it’s not often that a speaker actually recites a blessing from the podium. He said the Shehecheyanu blessing in Hebrew, recited over new beginnings, in honor of Israel’s upcoming 70th birthday.
Pence’s extended homily in Israel’s hilltop parliament — he should have billed it Sermon on Knesset Mount — was all about underscoring his firm belief that Israel represents “right over wrong.” And it drove home his point that “today and every day, the Jewish State of Israel, and all the Jewish people, bear witness to God’s faithfulness, as well as your own.”
For many Israelis, from a broad political background, it was novel and enjoyable having a foreign leader deliver such an embrace in parliament, without then giving the traditional sigh, switching tack and launching into a segment of rebuke “between friends.”
The speech was the highlight of Pence’s 48-hour visit, which included plaudits for bilateral trade, and visits to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem. Pence echoed messages from the speech during the meetings he held: his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem by the end of next year and reassurances that the U.S. and Israel are on the same page regarding Iran.
For the right wing in particular, the speech had added significance.
For years, this camp has been told: “OK, large swathes of Israel are coming around to your way of thinking. But Israel is a bubble — your thinking will never catch on abroad, in the places where it matters.” And now, its members had the vice president of the United States standing in Knesset and delivering their worldview.
There was the image of Israel as right, just and peaceful — with the Palestinians mentioned only as an obstacle to peace. It was inevitable given Ramallah’s boycott of the trip and all U.S. peace moves, but nevertheless music to the ears of the Israeli right, which loved having him prop up its longtime claim that there’s simply no partner to talk to on the Palestinian side. It was a license for this camp’s conviction that there’s no peace deal to be had with the Palestinians, and that it’s academic whether Israel would make concessions for peace.
“The United States appreciates your government’s declared willingness to resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority,” Pence said. “And today, we strongly urge the Palestinian leadership to return to the table. Peace can only come through dialogue.”
The implication of his speech was that Palestinians are raging for no reason about his administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Pence said that his boss simply “righted a 70-year wrong; he kept his word to the American people.” He also suggested that Trump had history on his side, as it was in Jerusalem “that King David consecrated the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. And since its rebirth, the modern State of Israel has called this city the seat of its government.”
What’s more, Pence used his Jerusalem segment to challenge the Palestinian narrative, which increasingly downplays Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem. He referred to Jews’ “unbreakable bond to this sacred city, [which] reaches back more than 3,000 years.”
Beyond all of this, the Pence speech threw another pet topic of the Israeli right into the spotlight — quite unintentionally and even though he didn’t say a word about it. Legislators from the Arab party Joint List disrupted the speech and held up signs calling Jerusalem the capital of Palestine.
This played straight into the hands of right-wing Knesset members, who cheered as the protesting politicians were ejected, and used the occasion to support their claim that Israel’s Arab population has become a fifth column. There is nothing like a bit of drama to shake things up. Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin was quick off the mark to call the Arab politicians in question “traitors.”
Pence’s day in Knesset was a dream day for the Israeli right — but for many, the hope is that it’s just Phase One. The push among politicians, including some senior Likud members, for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank is getting stronger, with legislative attempts, events and conferences.
This was a taboo topic with previous U.S. administrations, but it ignited rightist hopes when people saw a pious Pence on the podium, talking theology, Zionism and Trump’s departure from international consensus. Those who dream of annexation didn’t only like what Pence said, but also the way he said it.
“By finally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has chosen fact over fiction,” said Pence. “And fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace.” There are only a few miles from facts-on-the-ground in Jerusalem to facts-on-the-ground in the West Bank, note the annexationists.
They are already finding ways of blurring the line between sovereign Israel and West Bank settlements in their interactions with the U.S. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who wants to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, said in Pence’s presence that Israel will “continue to build houses, settle the land, and develop it — including Judea and Samaria.” And then he revealed what gift he was about to give the VP.
“I debated what to give you and your wife as a symbolic memento of this visit … I will give you a basket of goods that were made in one of the industrial centers in Judea and Samaria.” In making the presentation, Edelstein sought to rewrite the American textbook on what a settlement industrial zone represented, billing it not as a symbol of occupation, but as an “island of peace.”
Edelstein put a lot of political hopes in one basket. Until a year ago these hopes were easily dismissed, but today, nobody can predict if they will make headway. We just need to stay tuned until Trump’s next tweet or Pence’s next sermon.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.