By Daniel Gordis
February 16, 2017
The Benjamin Netanyahu on the White House podium Wednesday was the Netanyahu of old. Though politically weakened at home, the Israeli prime minister seemed uncharacteristically relaxed and self-confident. The smiles, the handshakes, the joking reference to President Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” and the prime minister’s grandfatherly banter with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, this was the Netanyahu whom Israelis have not seen in years.
By opening the news conference with a reference to the Jewish people’s painful history, President Trump afforded the prime minister an opportunity to do what he does best, what he did when he first took the world stage as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1984. The president gave Prime Minister Netanyahu a chance to make the case for the legitimacy of the Jewish people’s return to their ancestral homeland.
That was more than a rhetorical opportunity. For Mr. Netanyahu and many Israelis, Palestinian denial of that legitimacy is the real reason for the failure of the peace process. From the White House and in the presence of a sympathetic president, the prime minister was finally able to assert that the Palestinian commitment to a two-state solution has long been a hoax, that the Palestinians have employed two narratives, one for international consumption and another for Palestinians at home.
Despite his international protestations, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (like Yasir Arafat before him), has consistently denied that the Jews have a historic connection to the Temple Mount. Far more than arcane arguments over historical minutiae, the Arafat-Abbas tradition of denying a longstanding Jewish link to Jerusalem is the Palestinian’s inimitable way of saying that the Jews are simply the latest wave of Crusaders, that Israel is nothing but a colonialist presence in the Middle East. Just as the crusaders and colonialists of the past ultimately departed, the argument goes, so too will the Jews.
The belief that President Abbas sees the two-state solution as a steppingstone to a one – Arab – state solution leaves many Israelis cynical about the peace process and tiring of the rhetoric about two states. Mr. Trump may have shifted that momentum.
President Trump afforded Prime Minister Netanyahu an opportunity to assert – despite American denials – that Palestinian schools’ textbooks teach Palestinian children to hate Jews. Israelis wholeheartedly believe that accusation to be true. They know of the Fatah Party’s incendiary boast on Facebook that it had killed 11,000 Israelis and that the Palestinian Authority recently named its fourth school for Salah Khalaf, mastermind of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes. While President Barack Obama obliquely acknowledged in his eulogy for Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president and prime minister, that “Arab youth are taught to hate Israel from an early age,” Mr. Trump gave Mr. Netanyahu a stage from which to make the accusation explicit.
Outward appearances of confidence notwithstanding, Palestinian leaders undoubtedly understand that the jig is up – gone (for now) are the days in which they can tell the world one story and their people another. That actually gives Israelis hope that – if the Palestinians want political sovereignty – the Palestinian Authority will have to lay the groundwork by forging an entirely different narrative about Israel and Jews.
There is still no reason to assume that President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu can forge a deal. Mr. Trump’s White House is in disarray, Mr. Netanyahu is under investigation for corruption and politically weakened, Mr. Kushner has not a day of diplomatic experience, the other Arab countries that Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu hope will be part of an agreement may or may not cooperate and Palestinian hatred of Jews may be too deeply entrenched.
Yet there is at least cause for a glimmer of hope. On Wednesday, whatever ambivalences about Mr. Trump many Israelis have, they heard from a United States president sympathetic to their story, sensitive to their fears of Iran and committed to their safety. That may matter a great deal. For Israelis who feel safe and protected are infinitely more likely to make accommodations for peace.
Daniel Gordis, Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College, is the author of “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.”