Michael Rainsbury
Jewish Educator

From Trump Square to Balfour Street

A five-minute walk from my house takes me to the embassy of the United States, and seeing it fills me with pride. Finally, the world’s greatest power has recognizeded Jerusalem as the rightful capital of the State of Israel.

A short five-minute walk from my house takes me to the embassy’s address — Donald J. Trump Square — and being there makes me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. I recall four years of right-wing Israeli politicians, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, lauding Trump as the “greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House” and other excessive platitudes. But in light of recent events, from the handling of the coronavirus pandemic to the insurrection on Capitol Hill, there is no question among those of moral standing and those who believe in democracy that Donald Trump’s presidency ended in ignominy. Any American politician who wants to remain respectable knows they must distance themselves from the 45th president.

And yet for many Israelis across the political spectrum, the Trump Administration made an indelibly positive impact on Israel’s geopolitical situation. From recognising Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and the Golan, to promoting a more realistic vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace and facilitating normalisation with four Arab countries, there is no doubt in my mind that Israel’s political and diplomatic situation has been transformed for the good.

That is why determining Trump’s legacy will be complex and challenging for Israelis. It’s all too simple to dismiss it or revere it, or to frame it within the left vs right narrative. It goes to the heart of which values we prioritise most. Successful foreign and economic policy, enshrining national and historic rights and a realistic entry point to solve the Palestinian question? Or respectful dialogue, commitment to democracy and the peaceful transition of power?

But this question is not one of theory. It is the central, critical question that will be on the ballot box in March, as Israel once again holds a general election, otherwise known as a referendum on the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu.

All the above foreign policy achievements will be touted by Netanyahu as evidence that he alone is fit to lead Israel – and along with Israel’s successful nationwide vaccination programme, he makes a strong case. And yet at the same time, the main opposition to Netanyahu, whether from the left or right, stems from a belief that like Trump, Netanyahu is eroding the fabric of Israeli democracy.

Attacks on the police, justice system and media. Branding the phrase ‘leftist’ as synonymous with ‘traitor’, and labelling all his rivals as such, even those more right-wing than him. Using every political and legal means, fair or foul, to delay or cancel a criminal prosecution.

And this should lead us to the uncomfortable question: Should Netanyahu lose, would he leave power peacefully? Would we see a repeat of the scenes on Capitol Hill on Balfour Street?

You don’t have to be on the left or centre of the political spectrum to be worried about this question. The formation of Gidon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, made up of several former Likud loyalists, and Naftali Bennett’s decision to campaign to unseat Netanyahu, are testament to this. Yet Netanyahu is banking once again on Israelis ignoring, or being persuaded by, his divisive rhetoric and polarising politics – and choosing actions over words.

But with the events of 6th January 2021 in the forefront of our minds, Israelis can no longer say that we were not warned. Trump’s four years of uncouth words, angry tweets and divisive speeches came to a head in a bloody insurrection that cost lives – and was minutes away from an even greater tragedy.

That’s why I’ll be walking into the ballot box with my eyes wide open. I can appreciate the ends, but I won’t vote for their means. I can applaud significant actions without giving credence to uncivil words. I may celebrate the building on Trump Square, but I’ll also know that it will never justify what happened on Capitol Hill.

America has made its decision. Now, it’s Israel’s turn.

About the Author
Michael Rainsbury is the Head of Adult Education at the London School of Jewish Studies and a Sacks Scholar. He created the first dedicated English language tours of the Israeli President’s Residence in Jerusalem and leads Jewish heritage tours with JRoots. All articles are written in a personal capacity.
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