Sunday, February 19, 2017

What Does it Mean to be "Pro-Israel" in the Age of Trump?

The election of Donald Trump and his nomination of David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel portends a new phase in the U.S.-Israel relationship. During the campaign, President Trump boasted that he will be the most “pro-Israel” president in history. But what does that mean? In the case of Trump, it appears to mean paying little deference to past efforts at diplomacy and long-standing U.S. policy. Thus, Trump repeatedly criticized the U.S. government’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which re-affirmed international support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and condemned Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory as illegal and detrimental to peace. Many of Trump’s advisers and supporters openly questioned the idea of pursuing a two-state solution. The 2016 Republican Party platform eliminated any mention of a two-state solution. Iowa congressman Steve King (R-IA), an early Trump supporter, said that the two-state solution “has run its course.” 

The Israeli right rejoiced at Trump’s election. Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party in Israel, stated, “Trump’s victory is a tremendous opportunity for Israel to immediately announce its intention to renege on the idea of establishing Palestine in the heart of the country. . . . The era of the Palestinian state is over.” In recent months, there has been increasing talk of “Greater Israel” and a one-state solution. At a joint press conference in Washington earlier this week, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in verbal somersaults to avoid endorsing a two-state solution. Netanyahu heaped public praise on Trump and the new direction in U.S.-Israel relations: “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump."

Trump’s Ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, a lawyer from Long Island with no foreign policy experience, has long supported the Israeli settlement movement and annexation of the West Bank. In an article he wrote for Arutz Sheva, he accused President Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism” and described supporters of the pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street as “far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” When he was later asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic to clarify what may be among the vilest statements one Jew can say of another, Friedman said of liberal Zionists, “They’re not Jewish, and they’re not pro-Israel.” Although he attempted to tone down these past statements at his confirmation hearing last week, there is little doubt as to his true sentiments.

So, what does it mean to be “pro-Israel” in the Age of Trump? Does it require unquestioning acceptance of the policies of the current Israeli government (or at least no public criticism)? What about the contrary views of a majority of Israeli citizens? Should not the term “pro-Israel” be reserved to those who support policies that are in the long-term interests of Israel, its security, and its status as a Jewish and democratic state? For those of us who care about the future of the Jewish state and of liberal Zionism, is it right to worry about where the Trump-Netanyahu alliance is headed? Is there any realistic alternative to a two-state solution?

Before his tragic assassination in 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin understood that the visionary ideals of Israel’s Zionist founders, of a free and democratic Jewish state, remained in constant tension with the more expansionist religious and nationalistic claims to a Greater Israel. As the first Israeli-born Prime Minister who had fought for Israel’s survival and performed heroically in defending Israel during the Six-Day War, Rabin understood that the future of his beloved country, and of Zionism itself, could not withstand a permanent military occupation of land populated by millions of Palestinians.  

“Israel is no longer a people that dwells alone,” he said in 1992, alluding to the burdens of occupation. Rabin knew that to achieve peace great leaders must be willing to negotiate and compromise with their enemies. Even when destructive forces are determined to sabotage the peace process, Rabin said, “We must think differently, look at things in a different way.”

Rabin set Israel firmly on course to pursuit of a two-state solution, believing it was the only way to guarantee that Israel remained both Jewish and democratic. It is a framework that continues to be supported by two-thirds of Israeli Jews, according to a recent poll commissioned by J Street in Israel. The poll, conducted by a highly respected Israeli pollster on January 8-9, 2017, found that 66% of Israeli Jews and 68% of Israelis overall continue to support a two-state solution. Even 62% of Likud voters favor a two-state solution. These results should not be surprising. For those who live in Israel, the complex reality of life on the ground compels sensitivity to the tenuous nature of the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state.

The two-state solution is also overwhelmingly endorsed by former leaders of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, a group of experts who can hardly be accused of insufficiently understanding Israel’s security needs. Indeed, it is precisely out of concern for Israel’s long-term security that these military and intelligence experts support two states for two peoples.

Although Prime Minister Netanyahu has at times paid lip service to a two-state solution, in eight years he has made no serious effort to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict and has repeatedly defied U.S. policy by expanding the number of settlements in the West Bank. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently told The Axe Files, Netanyahu is “now the father of one-State Israel;... the Prime Minister of Israel-Palestine.” Friedman (the journalist) noted that the Israeli-right wants three things: (1) a state that encompasses all the land of Greater Israel (including all or most of the land encompassing East Jerusalem and the West Bank), (2) a Jewish state, and (3) a democratic state. In reality, given existing demographics and current birth rates, only two of these choices are achievable. Israel can have all the land of Greater Israel and be Jewish, but not democratic. Israel can have all the land of Greater Israel and be democratic, but not Jewish. Or Israel can be Jewish and democratic, but not have all the land of Greater Israel. These options are clearly delineated and immovable.

As the J Street-Israel poll demonstrates, most Israelis understand that Israel can remain true to its Jewish and democratic character only if it seeks a secure Israel within internationally recognized borders, side-by-side with a demilitarized Palestinian state. Any other solution is effectively the end of liberal Zionism. To be truly pro-Israel is to care about the long-term future of the Jewish state and to seek an Israel that permanently preserves its Zionist ideals and democratic traditions, while respecting the humanity and equality of Palestinians. The two-state solution is the only realistic path to a permanent peace that preserves Israel's Jewish and democratic character. Supporting the two-state solution, as do a majority of Israelis, is the most pro-Israel position one can take.

Admittedly, peace with the Palestinians may be a long way off. The Palestinians have a lot to do to get their own house in order. They must overcome incompetent and corrupt leadership, the Fatah-Hamas divide, and continued attempts by Hamas and others to de-legitimize Israel. But Israel's true supporters will continue to insist on policies (including cessation of West Bank settlements) that help preserve a Jewish homeland as a viable democracy within secure borders. Any resolution other than one that results in Israel and the Palestinians living side-by-side within internationally recognized borders irreparably undermines a future of peaceful co-existence and of Israel as a democratic homeland of the Jewish people.

I have no confidence that President Trump understands what is truly at stake in all of this. Some of his public comments ("I am looking at two-states or one state... I can live with either one") demonstrate a baffling degree of ignorance. But the question remains: Will Israel remain true to its Jewish and democratic values as it searches for a solution to its regional conflicts? We know where the majority of Israelis stand. I only hope that America under President Trump will remain pro-Israel in the truest sense of that term and not seek to undermine the majority sentiment of this Jewish and democratic nation.