The official script of this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference did not offer many surprises. CEO Howard Kohr reiterated AIPAC’s support of “two states for two peoples… one Jewish with secure and defensible borders, and one Palestinian with its own flag and its own future.” The failure to achieve peace was placed firmly on the shoulders of the Palestinians — Kohr lamented the lack of any “Palestinian willingness to talk face to face.”
This support for the principle of two states tempered by skepticism about the Palestinian desire for peace well reflects the prevailing mindset of a majority of Israelis.
To the left of them is a small group who, along with a much bigger group of American Jews, see the Palestinians primarily as victims and sympathize more with their plight. To their right is a much larger group of right-wingers that are opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state under any circumstances — and they are furious about AIPAC’s two-state position.
After the conference Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan sent a letter of protest to AIPAC:
I am astounded as to why such a great, meaningful organization as AIPAC, whose raison d’etre is pro-Israel advocacy in the United States, would represent the positions of the State of Israel (and of the United States) so inaccurately before senior government officials, senators and congressmen, and the general pro-Israel public. The position that AIPAC is representing as that of the State of Israel – in the AIPAC mission statement and in the AIPAC talking points inter alia – not only fails to represent Israel properly, it is detrimental to the efforts to achieve dialogue in the Middle East.
Is that a fair charge? What exactly are “the positions” of the Israeli government regarding a Palestinian state? Certainly most of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and all of the Jewish Home Party (the most right-wing coalition members) oppose the two-state formula. However, Netanyahu has never formally rescinded the statement he made upon returning to the prime ministership in 2009 in a famous speech at Bar-Ilan University, proclaiming a vision of “two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government.” Moreover, both the centrist Kulanu and the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, both of which are members of Netanyahu’s coalition government, are reliably ambiguous on the issue.
Those looking for a definitive position on the matter from this Israeli government will be disappointed; but more than that, they would be missing the more significant story. In calling for AIPAC to abandon the two-state solution, the Israeli right is calling into question the very premise upon which AIPAC operates.
Jonathan Rynhold, an Israeli academic specializing in US-Israel relations, has explained that Americans instinctively identify with Israel because: “American identity is based on democracy and liberalism… They look at Israel and say: we Americans are a country of immigrants who fled Europe because of religious persecution and set up a democracy. So are the Israelis. We are the same.” AIPAC’s raison d’être is to strengthen and promote the US-Israel relationship because the two countries are united by shared liberal democratic values.
Israel was established as a democracy in 1948 at a time when there were no more than twenty or so democracies in the word. This was a natural consequence of the historic Zionist commitment to democracy and liberal values evinced by Theodore Herzl, most notably in his utopian novel Altneuland, depicting a Jewish state in which Arabs lived as equal citizens. Herzl’s successors in the movement, whether from David Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists, or the Revisionist movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were no less wedded to the notion that the putative Jewish state must also be a democratic state.
It was Jabotinsky in fact, the most authentically liberal of all the Zionist thinkers, who had the most keenly developed sense that democracy must involve a fealty to certain fundamental principles — and not just a system in which the majority rules: “Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy. These contradictions will have to be prevented. The Jewish State will have to be such, ensuring that the minority will not be rendered defenseless.”
By contrast, much of today’s Israeli right view democracy as purely a system for choosing elected officials. And for all their nationalist fervor, the alternatives they have proposed thus far to the two-state solution signal a break from one of the essential pillars of Zionism: democracy and equal rights.
The right-wing, one-state approach clearly undermines this foundation. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett is the most prominent advocate of a partial annexation of the West Bank, which would extend sovereignty to the settlements but leave the vast majority of Palestinians outside of the state’s sovereign borders. Bennett himself admits that these Palestinians (around 2 million people) would not have true sovereign independence but rather “autonomy on steroids,” forced to live in isolated villages surrounded by Israeli settlers. Other proposals include making Palestinians citizens of Jordan, despite them being under Israeli rule, offering them Israeli citizenship based on security criteria and loyalty pledges or a straightforward offering of Israeli citizenship to all Palestinians on the assumption that Israel would retain its Jewish majority because the usually-stated numbers (accepted by the IDF by the way) are inflated.
If any of these “solutions” were enacted, Israel would be seriously jeopardizing the credibility of its claims to liberal democratic status.
The end of Israeli liberal democracy would probably also mean the end of Israel’s powerful Western alliances — including those with American Jews and the United States government. Its American friends in Congress and elsewhere are deeply committed to Israel’s security, helping to fund Israeli missile defense and using American diplomatic muscle to fight against what Nikki Haley legitimately termed “bullying” at the UN. Many of these friends appreciate that the Six-Day War of June 1967 was an existential war of no-choice, and that a full return to the pre-67 borders leaves the country unconscionably vulnerable. But these devoted friends of Israel are faithful to the founding principles of the United States, and believe that Israel shares those same principles. They will not be easily persuaded that Israel can remain a democracy while permanently ruling a territory in which Jews have full rights as citizens and Arabs do not.
A two-state agreement is not on the table right now. Israelis have good reason to fear the day after an IDF withdrawal from the West Bank in today’s reality of a brutally chaotic Middle East, and a corrupt Palestinian Authority with a record of inciting violence. Nevertheless, the door to the two-state solution must be left open. As Netanyahu waxed lyrical to the adoring crowd at AIPAC last week, the “beautiful alliance” between Israel and the US is “made of our shared values.” Israel’s abandonment of the two-state ideal means the abandonment of these values. Howard Kohr is right: two-states remains the only end-game in town.