What was most striking about Vice President Mike Pence’s paean to Israel in the Knesset on Monday was that the other shoe never dropped.
Former US president Barack Obama, his vice president Joe Biden, and their secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry all gave numerous high-profile speeches in Israel and about Israel during their years in office.
Like Pence, they all – each in his or her own way – praised the Jewish people for its resilience, and Israel for making the desert bloom.
But listening to them, you always knew there would be a “but” clause. You expected as a matter of course that somewhere in the middle of their speech – starting with a line about the importance of “good friends” being open with one another and telling each other the truth – the honey would turn to vinegar.
You always knew with the previous administration that at some point in the rhetoric the other shoe would drop, and a lecture would begin about how the current situation was unsustainable, how Israel could not be both Jewish and democratic, and how the settlements were a huge obstacle to peace.
What made Pence’s speech remarkable was simply that there was no “but” clause.
The speech was also striking for certain elements that were put in the address, and others that were left out.IN:
: Obama, when he was here in 2013, wowed the crowds during his four public remarks and speeches by peppering his comments with Hebrew words and modern cultural references: “Shalom,” “Tov lihiyot shuv b’Aretz (It’s good to be back in Israel),” and “Eretz Nehederet,” the name of a popular satirical show.
Pence, too, used some Hebrew, but it was drawn from the sacred, not the secular. With Israel preparing to celebrate its 70th anniversary, Pence drew on the traditional “shehecheyanu” prayer recited when reaching an auspicious moment.
“Shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la’zman ha’zeh,” he said, culling from the blessing thanking God for having “granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”
• Jerusalem, the capital of Israel
: In perhaps the biggest applause line of his speech, Pence declared something that no previous US official would publicly say: “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”
Not only that, but the official transcript put out by the White House of the speech noted that it took place at “The Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel.”
Though that may sound unremarkable, consider that when Obama spoke at the funeral of Shimon Peres in 2016, the White House crossed out and then corrected the transcript after it originally read “Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, Israel.” The corrected version read: “Mount Herzl, Jerusalem.”
• Iran is evil
: Channeling his inner Ronald Reagan, who famously declared the Soviet Union an evil empire, Pence ended the previous administration’s tiptoeing around the type of regime Iran really is.
Gone from his lexicon was the Obamaian “all of us have an interest in resolving this issue peacefully. Strong and principled diplomacy is the best way to ensure that the Iranian government forsakes nuclear weapons.”
Instead, Pence said this: “As the world has seen once again, the brutal regime in Iran is merely a brutal dictatorship that seeks to dominate its citizens and deny them of their most fundamental rights. History has proven, those who dominate their own people rarely stop there. And increasingly, we see Iran seeking to dominate the wider Arab world.”
And to the Iranian people, he added: “The day is coming when you will be free from the evil regime that suffocates your dreams and buries your hopes.
• Netanyahu’s talking points
: At certain points, it seemed Pence was dipping from Netanyahu’s well of talking points. The following lines used by the vice president have, with only slight variations, appeared on many different occasions in Netanyahu’s speeches:
“We strongly urge the Palestinian leadership to return to the table,” “Peace can only come through dialogue,” “Any peace agreement must guarantee Israel’s ability to defend itself by itself,” and “Fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace.”OUT:
: The vice president of the United States gave a speech without once using the word “settlements.”
In comparison with the Obama years, this is nothing short of revolutionary. By contrast, Kerry dedicated much of his December 2016 hour-plus swan song speech on the Mideast to slamming Israel because of the settlements.
• Security cooperation has never been better
: During the Obama years, one knew that a line about the closeness of the security relationship would come up in each high-profile speech.
“I am proud that the security relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger,” Obama said during his keynote speech in Jerusalem in 2013. “More exercises between our militaries, and more exchanges among our political, military and intelligence officials than ever before; the largest program to date to help you retain your qualitative military edge. Those are facts.”
Obama and his spokespeople highlighted those facts repeatedly because they drowned out another fact: that relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government were very tense in other areas, from Iran to the Palestinians. Pence did not need to highlight the security cooperation because the entire relationship right now – and not only that one element – is extremely close.
• Israel’s isolation
: Pence never talked about Israel’s “isolation,” as Obama, Biden and Kerry often would, as a rod to push Israel into making concessions.
For instance, in his Jerusalem speech, Obama said, “Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation.” Obama and Kerry took the isolation as a given and their natural conclusion was that Israeli concessions would reverse it. Pence’s speech omitted that premise.
• Abbas is a partner
: Pence also never said even once that the Palestinian Authority or its leader Mahmoud Abbas was a partner – indeed, possibly the last partner – and that Israel needed to realize this and not squander what might be the last opportunity to deal with a “partner” devoted to peace.
Listen to Obama in 2013: “I believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas.”
Pence never said anything remotely similar. This is really not a surprise, given the Palestinian Authority under Abbas boycotted Pence’s visit and declared that the US has written itself out of the peace process.