Jewish Activists Part With Bibi On Settlements

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 20, 2009, issue of May 29, 2009.
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Israel’s change of tone toward the Palestinian peace process under its new government has caught Jewish supporters in the United States off guard, leaving them to grapple with a policy shift that now stresses the need to limit future Palestinian sovereignty and avoids discussing a two-state solution.

Following Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington, pro-Israel activists sought to dismiss differences between Israel and the United States on this issue as semantic. At the same time, they made clear that they will not stop using the term “two-state solution” and will not change their message when advocating on behalf of Israel.

But while most activists agree that disputes over terminology can be resolved easily, they are concerned about a possible upcoming conflict over the Obama administration’s demand to stop expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank. On this issue, pro-Israel activists say, the community could find it difficult to back Netanyahu.

Obama, according to officials briefed on his May 18 meeting with Netanyahu, asked the Israeli leader to get back to him with specific answers regarding America’s demand for a settlement freeze. Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed their requirement that Israel stop settlement activity and remove outposts as a key element in the administration’s Middle East policy. “Nothing should be done to undermine the potential resolution of the peace effort that could prevent such a two-state solution from taking hold,” Clinton said in a May 19 press conference.

For Israel’s Jewish supporters, an America-Israel clash over the settlement issue could be difficult to manage. In past administrations, they lobbied repeatedly against American pressure on Israel to stop Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But in 1992, the first President Bush soundly defeated an all-out effort by Jewish groups to stop him from conditioning a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel on a West Bank settlement freeze. They declined a subsequent request from then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to continue their efforts.

Since then, most mainstream Jewish groups have been reluctant to come to Israel’s defense when it refused to stop building in the West Bank. Now, an official with one Jewish organization said, reaction will depend on how the Obama administration presents its demands. “If they allow reasonable natural growth and Israel still refuses, I think the community will support the president’s demand,” the official said.

Nathan Diament, Washington public policy director of the Orthodox Union, said that just as Netanyahu seeks to redefine the term “Palestinian state,” it is time to do the same with settlements. “There needs to be some nuanced approach,” he said, calling for the United States to make a policy distinction between building within the large settlement blocks and that which takes place in remote settlements.

As if to underline the resistance this will face from the settlement movement, a regional committee issued tenders for 20 new homes in Maskiyot, a new West Bank settlement in the Jordan Valley, just days before Netanyahu left for Washington.

Both the White House and the Israeli prime minister’s office worked hard to downplay the differences in Obama’s and Netanyahu’s approach toward the peace process in the wake of their meeting. Hours after both leaders expressed opposite views on Palestinian statehood at a lengthy Oval Office photo opportunity, aides to Obama organized a conference call for Jewish pro-Israel activists, where they discussed the meeting. Participants were asked not to reveal the content of the discussion, but according to multiple sources, the administration made clear to the Jewish activists that Netanyahu’s refusal to use the term “Palestinian state” is not viewed as an impassable obstacle.

“It seems to us that there is no substantial difference when it comes to the end result,” a senior administration official told participants. At the same time, he did stress that Obama believes a two-state solution “is the only realistic solution” to the conflict.

A similar message came from Netanyahu himself, who met with 40 Jewish leaders on May 19. Netanyahu, according to several participants, stressed that his approach is not meant to undermine prospects of Palestinian self-governance, but rather to give higher priority to ensuring what he sees as Israel’s security needs when such a Palestinian entity is created. “For me, this is a substantive issue,” Netanyahu told reporters, “and if there is understanding on this substantial issue, the other problem will be resolved.”

For most Jewish activists, Netanyahu’s explanations and the White House’s reassuring message were enough to put aside concerns regarding the discord over the two-state solution. “There might be areas in which the semantics are not lining up as it was in the past, but there is nothing that indicates any profound differences,” said Jason Isaacson, director of the Office of Government and International Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, after meeting with Netanyahu. Another official with a Jewish organization, speaking on condition of anonymity, added that it is clear Netanyahu has political constraints and that both Netanyahu and Obama agree on the final outcome of talks with the Palestinians, even if they use different terminology.

Still, Netanyahu’s change of emphasis on the Palestinian statehood issue comes at an uncomfortable time for the mainstream Jewish community, which has fully embraced the idea of a two-state solution and has been working to promote it within the community and among policymakers.

As Netanyahu visited Congress on May 19 and met with key lawmakers, 76 senators sent a letter to President Obama regarding the Arab-Israeli peace process. The letter, vigorously supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, includes a mention of a “viable Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with the Jewish state of Israel.” The letter, which was among AIPAC’s three top lobbying priorities, also stresses the need for Palestinians to end terror and reform their institutions.

An official with a pro-Israel group said there is no reason now to change the language, despite Netanyahu’s reluctance to use the term “Palestinian state.”

M.J. Rosenberg, Washington director of policy analysis at the dovish Israel Policy Forum, said the idea of a two-state solution is “locked in concrete” for most Jewish organizations and unlikely to be replaced. But he also believes that “all the American Jewish community has ever done was to offer lip service to the idea of two states.”

Meanwhile, on the hawkish end of the Jewish political spectrum, Netanyahu’s new approach was a welcome change. “President Obama’s troubling reiteration of his call for a Palestinian state is the continuation of an old, failed policy,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

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