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.

 

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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.

My thoughts on Disengagement 10 years on

This was published in Ha’artez August 9th 2015

With the demonstrations in Beit El and attempts to return to the evacuated West Bank settlement of Sa-Nur last week, I’ve been thinking about where I was 10 years ago when the disengagement from Gaza took place. At the time, I was 18 years old and spending the year at Yeshivat Hakotel, one of the flagship religious Zionist yeshivas in the hesder yeshiva program (in which young Israeli men combine Torah study with military service).
That academic year, from 2004 to 2005, Rabbi Mordechai “Moti” Elon was still head of the yeshiva and at the height of his popularity. (A scandal later broke out and he was convicted in 2013 for sexually assaulting two of his students.) The son of a Supreme Court judge and brother of a former Knesset member for a religious Zionist political party, Rav Elon served as a bridge between the religious and secular in Israel. He was one of the leading lights of the religious Zionist world; with a popular TV program and thousands of students attending his classes each week.
The public debate in the religious Zionist community revolved around the question of whether soldiers should disobey orders if they were told to evacuate the settlements. In a memorable public class, Rav Elon presented his decision that a solider should obey the orders, but gave special permission to refuse orders to a soldier who said his wife would divorce him if he obeyed them.
The color orange – the national symbol against the disengagement plan – decked the yeshiva’s main hall. At every opportunity, the entire yeshiva would decamp to Gush Katif to show solidarity with the people there. At various points in the year, the entire yeshiva would even move their classes to outside the Knesset, linking the day’s learning to protesting the government’s decision to evacuate the settlements.
I vividly remember being terrified that at one of the public demonstrations against the disengagement Rav Elon would be arrested and his students would respond with a violent riot. I was so upset by this concern that I went to Rav Elon and begged him to stop leading demonstrations. With compassion, he spoke to me about the need to ensure his students were all leaders and that all of them understood they were not just representing themselves, but the entire religious Zionist community.
It was also during this time that I was starting to become very politically conscious. I was uncomfortable with the activism that the yeshiva was taking and chose to not go to Gush Katif to protest alongside my fellow classmates. I also skipped the Knesset protest.
I did however go to Gush Katif on an educational trip with Bnei Akiva, the youth movement who was managing my yeshiva program, three months before the disengagement, to meet those who were going to be evacuated and ask them questions. Upon entering Gush Katif, I was struck by the beauty of the place alongside the absurdity of the situation. There were blocks of picturesque houses with a tank sitting on the corner of the settlement, looking out over what was an eerie, empty field, and Palestinian villages just a few hundred meters beyond that. The organizer of the trip was terrified that a Qassam rocket would hit our bus, as it was Gush Katif that had been the main target of rocket and mortar attacks up until that point.
Two things remain fresh in my mind about that visit to the Gush Katif settlements. The first was meeting a farmer who was working in his greenhouse. When we asked if he had made any preparation for the evacuation in three months, he told us that one does not speak about a funeral when a patient is lying on their deathbed. The second was seeing another resident digging to prepare the foundations of a house. When we asked why he was building a house when the government was evacuating them in three months’ time, he told us that there was utterly no way that it would happen, that G-d would reverse the evil of the decree. Seeing his children playing behind, him we asked if he had let his children know that they might be moving. He looked at us as though we were crazy.
The disengagement was traumatic for the evacuees, with many subsequently suffering from emotional and physical health problems. The state’s mistreatment of evacuees, including leaving them to live in temporary housing for years thereafter, contributed to the bedrock of mistrust between many in the settler community and the government. Beyond its impact on the individuals, the disengagement sparked a conversation within the religious Zionist community about whether the state is an object of divine intervention – a vehicle for redemption – or whether it just a secular thing that could prolong the coming of the Messiah.
Watching religious Zionist protesters in Beit El last week as they screamed, “War, this is war,” and urged one another to push back the Border Police, I can’t help but think that the State of Israel is facing a new constituency who refuses to accept the law of the land. I remember the time when Israel managed to dismantle multiple settlements with minimal violence and worrying back then that I was living though the moment where the state’s sovereignty over the religious Zionist community was being torn asunder.