It’s a dilemma many left-wing Jewish activists are facing these days: How should doves deal with President Donald Trump’s pivot to Middle East peacemaking? Can the same activists who fought fiercely against Trump’s election and who oppose almost everything he stands for embrace the president’s effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
“The overwhelming, if not unanimous, view of people engaged in J Street is that this man is not suitable for the office he holds,” acknowledged Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and CEO of the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby J Street. But, at the same time, he added that the group’s policy goal is “to find a way to resolve the conflict, and if this administration takes meaningful steps toward resolving the conflict, our organization will support him.”
This suspicious approach toward Trump and the questioning of his seriousness are not the usual course of action for left-leaning Jewish organizations that are normally first to cheer any American move toward advancing Middle East peace.
“If Hillary would say and do what Trump has been saying and doing, we would praise her,” said an official with one of the pro-peace Jewish groups. “We wouldn’t demand that she prove her sincerity.”
J Street and other pro-peace groups’ potential support for the president is conditional and, they stress, will only materialize if Trump makes good on what for now are very general statements about his wish to broker the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians.
“It’s pointless because it’s never going to happen,” responded veteran liberal activist M.J. Rosenberg. Even if Trump makes peace, the president shouldn’t expect the Jewish community’s support. “If a miracle happens and he somehow brings peace,” Rosenberg said, “the next day I will say: ‘Now let’s work to get him out of power.”
In a statement issued by J Street after Trump concluded the Middle East leg of his overseas trip, the group said it was “encouraged” by the president’s speech in Jerusalem. But they also made it clear that vague aspirations were not enough. J Street wants “a clear re-affirmation of longstanding bipartisan U.S. policy that the two-state solution is the only viable way to resolve this conflict.
Americans for Peace Now made a similar statement to J Street’s. The pro-peace group reiterated its pledge to “leverage our influence” in support for Trump’s peace initiative, if he “takes action indicating that he is seriously pursuing a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.”
Ori Nir, APN’s spokesman, explained that wariness towards Trump stems from his conduct, rather than from political opposition to him. “It’s a dilemma,” said Nir. “The President,” said Nir, is approaching this issue in a Trump-like manner: Generalities and platitudes, no vision, no professional team, conflicting messages, and a credibility deficit. Once we’re convinced that he’s serious, we’ll support him.”
Not all groups pursuing a two-state solution are so leery of Trump, however. Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, a Jewish organization devoted to the idea of promoting a two-state solution, begs to differ. For him, what matters are Trump’s actions on Middle East peacemaking, and so far, he likes what he’s seeing, even if Trump can’t bring himself to utter the words “two-state solution.”
“Words do indeed matter,” Koplow wrote, but deeds matter more, and despite his rhetorical evasions, Trump’s actions so far speak volumes about his views on two states.
But most on the left aren’t willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, or to provide even their conditional blessing to his peace efforts. Writing in Haaretz, peace activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, took issue with some colleagues she said were rushing to pin their hopes on Trump and to offer him their support. “You may say, as long as he delivers. But if people don’t trust the delivery man, why would they accept the package or believe what he says is in it?” Cottin Pogrebin asked.
For now, the Jewish left’s dilemma is confined to internal organizational conversations and to opinion columns. Internal divisions could sharpen, however, if Trump, and his Middle East peace negotiator Jason Greenblatt, actually get the parties to the table and offer a plan.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.