In the weeks leading up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s White House meetings with President Obama, the American Jewish community vigorously debated whether to support a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Groups on the left called for Obama to press the Israeli prime minister to openly state his acceptance of the “two-state solution,” while groups on the right urged Netanyahu to resist any presidential arm-twisting.
In the leaders’ Oval Office press conference, Netanyahu threaded the needle on this issue by stating: “I want to make it clear that we don’t want to govern the Palestinians. We want to live in peace with them. We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the State of Israel… my view is less one of terminology, but one of substance.”
With this statement, Netanyahu made explicit what so many, on the political left and right, have elided or assumed for many years. The term “state,” in the context of international law and diplomacy, has a specific meaning of sovereignty and autonomy. A state gets to run its own affairs internally — from taxation to traffic regulation to electing its own leaders. A state also gets to raise an army and acquire weapons from abroad. In short, a Palestinian state, if possessing all the attributes of sovereignty, threatens the daily lives of Israelis.
The prime minister’s position highlights that people are throwing around the term “two-state solution” rather cavalierly. Netanyahu has thus “called the question” — for the Obama administration certainly, but also for the American Jewish community, particularly those at our political poles.
There are those on the Jewish right who, for religious or ideological reasons, do not believe a single square inch of what was historically biblical Israel ought to be relinquished to the Palestinians under any conditions. Netanyahu’s argument does not challenge their views.
Many on the Jewish right (and in the center), however, do not oppose — in principle — the creation of a Palestinian state in portions of Judea and Samaria, but they do believe that an autonomous Palestinian state will imperil Israel’s security and the lives of her citizens, especially if established anytime soon.
Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, as we well know, resulted in it becoming a launching pad for terrorist rockets aimed at innocent Israelis. One cannot accuse those who do not wish to see rockets similarly rain down from the Judean hills onto Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as being “anti-peace.” Those rightly concerned over such a sequel to the Gaza experience can reasonably demand more than mere assurances, but rather a track record demonstrating Palestinian will and ability to ensure Israel’s security.
But while those on the center- right might need to more explicitly enunciate their opposition to the “two-state solution,” in these temporal terms, the stronger challenge seems to be to those on the Jewish left — especially in the United States.
For it was the self-styled “pro-peace” organizations and pundits that pilloried the prime minister for his refusal to verbally embrace “the two-state solution.” But now they must explain: By their definition, when they urge this solution and insist the Obama administration press for it, do they dissent from the view that the Palestinian state be demilitarized and lack other sovereign powers?
Even Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who supports a two-state solution, accepted this logic at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee meeting a few weeks ago, when he said: “Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, only to face Hezbollah missiles. Israel withdrew from Gaza, only to face Hamas rockets. The Israelis are not about to let the same thing happen in the West Bank, and nor should they.”
If those of the Jewish left cannot concur on this, that begs the question: What kind of peace are they interested in for Israel?
But if, as I hope, they do agree that a “two-state solution” must not mean its literal definition, then we have stumbled onto a significant opportunity for unity in the American Jewish community. For while there will still be disagreements over critical details, the “pro-peace-process” left can join with the skeptical center-right in a clear message of unified support for a substantive result and, moreover, support the current prime minister of Israel’s stated goal of assuring that any result from negotiations guarantees Israel’s security, peace and Jewish character.
As Obama noted in his Oval Office statement, Israel is currently “confronted with as many important decisions about the [state’s] long-term strategic interests… as any… that we’ve seen in a very long time.” American Jewry must rally to a common message and common purpose to support Israel so that the Jewish homeland will make wise decisions and endure.
Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.