The importance of President Trump’s political capital in making the ultimate deal

This appeared as the main print Op-Ed in the Jerusalem Post on May 9th 2017

With Jeremy Saltan 

Despite the time, effort, and attention of the Obama administration, Israelis never trusted President Obama. No matter the level of security assistance, Israelis just did not like him and felt that he ignored public opinion. When trying to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, trust, fondness and respecting Israeli public opinion matters. Given the current global and regional security dynamic, Israel likely would have to take significant risks to agree to change the status quo. Any future final-status agreement would require that Israel reduce the access the IDF currently maintains within the West Bank/Judea & Samaria.

Israeli public opinion polling shows Israelis agree to make adjustments to the status-quo in three potential scenarios. A) If Israelis believe their security will increase after a deal is made because the threat emanating from the Palestinians will decrease. B) If Israelis believe they could place themselves in a worse position by saying no to a potential deal. C) If Israelis believe they will be more secure because there is an opportunity to enjoy a security pact with a world superpower. This requires a peacemaker they like and trust.

Israelis do not believe that a deal with the Palestinians will make them safer, and public opinion is trending downward. The latest poll conducted by Professor Mina Tzemech for the Jerusalem Center on Public Affairs found that support for the Clinton Parameters is the lowest on record with only 29% supporting. That number drops to 18% if the deal does not include full Israeli security control of the West Bank/Judea & Samaria. It becomes even more complicated with the non-security-based elements of the Clinton Parameters as just 10% of Israelis support the transfer of the Temple Mount to Palestinian sovereignty.

While support for the Clinton parameters is at a historic low, desire for American involvement has increased strongly under President Trump. Israelis were asked if they could rely more on a settlement with the Palestinians under President Obama or under President Trump. 54.3% of Israelis responded they would rely more on President Trump’s involvement compared to 16.3% who responded Obama. A great majority of Israelis, 74%, answered that it is important the Americans are involved in any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

While Israelis clearly trust President Trump more than his predecessor his word is not enough. He will need to take action. His word only brings 31% to support a withdrawal from the West Bank/Judea & Samaria. However, if a final-status deal came with a guaranteed security pact with the United States, 51% of Israelis would agree to the Clinton Parameters. With his current approval ratings in Israel a narrow majority of Israelis believe that under President Trump a US security pact is strong enough to overcome their security fears of what a final-status agreement would require.

President Trump clearly has the political capital needed to make major progress towards the ultimate deal that he desires. He is in a better position than his predecessors. His unpredictable style also makes the 60% of Israelis who believe that the US-Israel special relationship is central to Israel’s security wonder what the President who is chasing the ultimate deal would do if Israel is the one who says no.

Starting from this strong position, President Trump’s trip to Israel is a key opportunity to increase his political capital so he can move closer to his goal. In addition to meeting politicians he needs to bring his case to the Israeli people with an approach that takes their public opinion into account. Prime Minister Netanyahu learned from his defeat in 1999 what it means to have a difficult relationship with a popular US president in the eyes of the Israeli public. President Trump’s challenge will be to show the Israeli people that they have placed their trust in someone who will not abandon them without cause and lives up to his commitments. In addition President Trump needs to show the Palestinians that he can move the ball meaningfully forward in a way that changes their day-to-day reality. Undoubtedly, this will be a difficult act to pull off.

Hope is a scarce commodity among the communities that have experienced failure for decades. Only 10.1% of Palestinians and 24.8% of Israelis expected President Trump to try his hand at restarting negotiations according to the latest joint polling. Given that few believed President Trump would attempt this so early, if at all, he suffers from none of the high expectations that followed President Obama into office. While it would gall many on the left that it could be President Trump who makes the ‘ultimate deal’, it would be a grave mistake and counterproductive for them to mock his efforts.

Despite the lowered expectations, no one should doubt President Trump’s commitment given he has chosen to visit both the Israelis and the Palestinians as part of his first international trip. When President Trump arrives in the region his mission will be to show that he has Israel’s back and that an eventual deal between Israeli and Palestinian people is possible. The data show he starts in a far stronger position than those who came before him. It is in the interest of everyone that we wish the President of the United States of America the best of luck.

 

Tribal classrooms lead to a tribal society

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 12/15/16

Israel’s population is a mishmash of Jewish communities from around the globe with a healthy dash of the local Arab population. Like any society, Israel struggles to find a way to create a healthy shared society between the disparate parts of the community that came to the land with their own customs, cultures, emotional baggage and expectations.

The conflicting nature of the tribes of Israel- the secular, the national religious, the ultra-orthodox and the Arabs- has best been captured by President Rivlin who has made his presidency about promoting true community cohesion and anti-racism.

In most societies, the place where a sense of civic identity is created is in the public school system. Coming from different backgrounds, the children of a nation are socialized together learning common themes and values, helping to overcome the differences that make up part of their home life.

In Israel however, the segmented nature of the education system means that public schooling is the foundation of the walls between the tribes, rather than the melting pot to mix them up. Israel has separate tracks for secular, religious, Arab and ultra-orthodox education. Though the Education Ministry is the second largest government department (after defense), the Minister finds it hard to affect the classrooms of children not from his constituency. Just ask Minister Bennett about the teaching of english and mathematics in the Ultra-Orthodox schools at the moment.

The divided nature of the school system means that there is no place where Israelis from different religious, and in some cases ethnic, backgrounds meet one another. Instead, the fulcrum of civic patriotism moves from the classroom to the battlefield with universal conscription being the birthplace of a unified society.

There are two obvious problems however. First, Ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens don’t serve in the military, meaning that they miss the access point to civic-national identity that bonds the nation across socio-economic, religious and ethnic boundaries. Second, unlike the classroom, where free expression and critical thought are the backbone of educational instruction, the Army is a place for order, authority and militarism. The national values of Israeli society are not coming from the public school, but from the IDF, which further divides society within the context of the ongoing conflict.

The exclusionary nature of conscription within an ever-diversifying state of Israel means that citizens are finding less and less common cause with one another. The divided nature of public education leads to a social anxiety for each segment, each believing themselves a minority within a system where the other tribes have advantages or are burdens upon them.

There are some phenomenal efforts to try and mitigate the worst aspects of the systemic educational separation. Groups like Givat Haviva try and ensure that pupils from the different schools meet, the Abraham Fund ensures that each school sector prioritizes the others’ language, Merchavim look to place Arab teachers in Jewish schools. The biggest challenge to the separation of the schooling system is the Hand in Hand school system, whose national network of seven schools looks to create a true bilingual environment for its students.

Yet despite these efforts, the root cause of the continuation of the tribes of Israel are the divided schools of Israel. As Israel becomes more religious and more Arab each passing year, how much longer can the divided school system prop up a society with such deep fissures within it?

As Israeli patriots like President Rivlin look to try and create a truly integrated, inclusive society, a radical idea might be to start re-examining the anachronistic nature of public education in Israel, find ways to try and change it root and branch.

Descent into demography

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 11/24/16

2016 has been a hard year for liberals and progressives around the Western world, but the election of Donald Trump, and the racist Alt-Right that have ridden in on his coattails, is the capstone on a year many of us would rather forget.

This election was not about common ground. It was not about compromises or progress. It was screaming “stop.” Stop to the rising healthcare premiums, stop to the disappearing jobs, stop to the changing demographic face of America, stop to social change that many found disconcerting.

It was a fearful cry.

One of the key characteristics of the Trump voter is social anxiety. Will their kids be as stable as they were in the country of their birth? Will newcomers get fasttracked to the middle class? Will someone listen to them if they are not a minority? Trump won because low-propensity white voters turned out in historic numbers in swing states, and the multiethnic Democratic coalition did not. America’s changing demographic face led Trump to campaign that “this would be the last election” in which a Republican would stand a chance, as amnesty for illegal immigrants would ensure a locked-in Democrat majority.

Demographic fears are something that should be familiar to Israeli voters. The now infamous statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Arabs voting in “droves” turned out his base to vote for the Likud in 2015. When given the choice between a prime minister that many might have issues with and a threatening demographic situation, Israeli Jews voted ethnicity first for fear of the others coming to get them.

It is not just the Right that has used demography in political campaigns in Israel.

Still today, many in the Center and the Left call for a two-state solution based on the demographic futures that they fear, and believe that this strategy will win over voters to their cause. This strategy has failed for the past decade and continues to create further obstacles to the political possibilities of the Arab parties in the Knesset needed to support a Center-Left coalition, something essential if the Center-Left ever wishes to form a government.

The descent into demography, to looking at someone’s racial identity as political destiny, is a challenging phenomenon for liberal democracies. If racial minorities are seen as demographic threats, every interaction with the minority is threatening and every child born is seen as another solider in the battle for supremacy.

This type of social anxiety is difficult to combat. It assumes a zero-sum game where if one group is succeeding, another by definition must be losing.

It can’t be that the progressive communities answer this social anxiety by giving up on hard-fought wins for marginalized communities. If coming together and listening to each other is just a form of surrender of one community to the other, then the zero-sum game continues and the societal divisions are exacerbated.

Rather than just attempting purposeless dialogue, we need to seek out shared projects where each community has a stake in the success of the outcome. If our communities are hopelessly divided, we need to find the activities that can bond them and help deal with the fear of the other that is fueling so much of the anxiety that hit a boiling point in this past election in America.

The former UK chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has written about a “home we build together” – the joint work of different groups in building shared institutions that form the backbone of a cohesive society.

In both America and in Israel, building inclusive projects, ones that have stakeholders from across the diverse communities that make up each society, are the foundation to realizing the equality that is promised in both Israel and America’s founding statements.

As the Left in both countries tries to examine their path forward, issues rather than demographics should be the rallying cry. Defending hard-won principles while finding common cause across people of different identity is the challenging but true path back to leadership.

Hope is not a strategy

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post on Oct 9th 2016 and is co-authored with Jeremy Saltan 

When asked about the future of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the White House press pool, Former United States President Bill Clinton, who had just returned from the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, stated that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will happen at some point because the young people in the region will demand it.

The assessment made by Clinton has been made by countless others in the past and is a mainstream position among policy makers –young Israelis will be our saviors. However, if one looks at the data, statistics, and polling of young people in Israel, it is quite clear that the next generation in Israel has a different view than many policy wonks.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on July 17, 2016, found among the 18-29 demographic only 35% supported the principle of ‘two states for two nations’ as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to 53% against it. The youngest voters were the least supportive of the two state solution. The poll results countered Clinton’s argument and found that the older the voter the more likely was voter support of a two state solution.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on the August 31, 2016, found a majority (54%) among the 18-29 demographic considered Haredi control over religion and state issues acceptable compared to a minority (43%) among the 50+ demographic.

The latest Pew poll conducted in Israel, arguably the most comprehensive polling ever conducted in Israel, found the younger age bracket (in this case 18-49) was more religiously observant and less supportive of two states than their elders. The younger demographic is more inclined to be supportive of settlements, believe that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, believe that security is Israel’s biggest threat, believe that Israel was given to the Jews by G-d, favor gender segregation on public transportation, favor Halachah as a basis of law in Israel, and view the US as not supportive enough of Israel.

The policy positions of young Israelis trickle down to party affiliation and Prime Minister preference. A Midgam poll broadcast by Army Radio in 2015 found 18-29 year olds were the most likely to choose Netanyahu as Prime Minister (57%) and least likely to choose Herzog (19%). Midgam found the older the voter the more likely was support of Herzog over Netanyahu. A Teleseker poll published by Walla in 2013 found 67.6% of Bayit Yehudi voters were between the ages of 18-49, compared to 32.4% over the age of 50.

There is a clear trend that the younger generation is more religious and more right-wing than previous generations. While in most countries the younger population represents a more left wing and socially open constituency, in Israel the trend is actually the opposite.

It is our belief that this is due to at least two factors.

The changing demographics in Israel mean that the next generation is more religious. The official Israeli Social Survey of the Central Bureau of Statistics found the 18-29 demographic is more religious than the older demographics. The Haredi share of the 18-29 population is 12%. The national religious share is 13%, and the traditional share is 31%. Although secular Israelis make up a majority of the 50+ demographic (52%), they make up 44% of the 18-29 demographic. This trend is set to continue in the coming years as 28% of Haredim aged 40 or older have 7 or more children compared to less than 1% of secular Israelis.

These long term demographic changes adjust the make up of the younger generation and, given the separation within the Israeli education system, carries forward their communities’ belief systems in separate tracks.

While the demographics can help explain the religiosity of the younger cohort, their support for the right is not mere biological determinism. This is a generation that came of age during the second Intifada and its aftermath. The hope and promise of the 1990s means little to nothing to young Israelis. The political horizon of young Israelis has been one of stunted visions and conflict management. Given that reality, young Israelis’ skepticism of everything other than what they have experienced is understandable.

The purpose of this snapshot is to ground in reality the current situation of young people in Israel today. To believe young Israelis will demand a future that is different from their current experience, with all things being equal, does not bear out in the data. As time goes on the demographic realities of young Israelis manifest in overall poll numbers, such as a Panels poll in May that found 53% of Israelis in favor of applying Israeli law to at least some settlements in Judea and Samaria/West Bank.

Israeli youth differ from the progressive left wing wave of change that we see elsewhere in the world. The majority of young Israelis resemble and identify more with the governing right-wing religious coalition of Israel, not the left-wing secular opposition.

The hope of a rising youth that will demand the change President Clinton hopes to see coming from Israel is against all trends in the data. Rather than trusting gut feelings and being disappointed when the results don’t bare out, a realistic assessment of the current state of play should drive policy making and strategic considerations. Only with an eyes open approach can those who wish for a change in the status quo begin to build a strategy to achieve it.

Israel should not pay for American Jewish College Students

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 08/27/16

According to the latest data from the OECD, Israel gives 0.07 percent of its gross national income away in international aid. This is just under $200 million dollars. Israel ranks just above Russia (at 0.06%) and Thailand (0.02%) at third from bottom. In case you were wondering, the Slovak Republic is just above at 0.1%.

With so little taxpayer money going overseas to support needy causes, it is interesting to note that earlier this month, the government unveiled the recipients of what represents 11% of its total largesse – North American Jewish college students. $22m. will be given to Hillel International, Chabad and Olami to strengthen Jewish identity and deepen Jewish engagement on campus.

Mosaic United is the final incarnation of the “Government of Israel World Jewry Initiative” that became the “Israel-Diaspora Initiative,” three years in the making.

Is it that having the support of the government of Israel will help in campus outreach from a strategic level? If anything the reverse is true; any student will tell you that getting Israeli government support for your activities makes you a target for accusations of acting as a foreign government agent. It’s the same accusation that the government of Israel has made of the NGO community in Israel, namely that by receiving foreign government donations the non-profits are foreign agents.

If it’s not a funding gap and there is no strategic value to having the government of Israel stamp on your program, is it that the government does not trust that the US Jewish community is capable of providing the correct Jewish content to their community?

Israel as a country, and certainly as a coalition government has enough of its own problems in working out what being Jewish means to preach it to its biggest Diaspora. The egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, usage of mikvaot for non-orthodox streams of Judaism, and the issue of conversion are at the forefront of a never-ending laundry list of issues that create tension between the different segments of Jewish practice.

Looking at who the grantees are of this first round of funding, the concern of the Reform and Conservative community in the US is that Israel is trying to create a more Orthodox America. Chabad and Olami are Orthodox outreach movements. It is very easy to paint Mosaic United as Israel’s way to create a more Orthodox Jewish Diaspora who, on average, are more likely to support the policies of the current government of Israel.

Given the tensions that will exist in every Knesset about the issues of Judaism, the government is perhaps the least capable entity to fund a real conversation about Jewish identity today.

If one of the dozen Israeli billionaires or thousand or so millionaires want to fund alongside the North American Jewish philanthropic community programs for American 13-35-year-olds, that would be wonderful.

Until then, Israeli taxpayers’ international aid should support the poor, needy and sick, doubling down on the remarkable programs that help victims of the Syrian civil war, support victims of natural disasters and gift Israeli water technology to help deal with climate change around the world.