Donald Trump’s egregiously right-wing nominee to be ambassador to Israel, his diplomatically challenged bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, may please Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But his nomination doesn’t augur well for growing divisions within the American Jewish community or American-Israeli relations. In addition to enthusiastically embracing unlimited West Bank settlement expansion and opposing a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, Friedman has labeled Jews who don’t agree with his approach as “worse than kapos.” Kapos were concentration camp prisoners who helped the SS by keeping fellow Jews in line. His comparison is odious.
A majority of American Jews oppose further settlement expansion and support a two-state solution with adequate provisions for security but were surprised when the Obama administration abstained from the United Nations resolution condemning the West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.
This wasn’t the first time a US Administration (going back to Ronald Reagan) had abstained in Israeli settlement votes in the Security Council. But this abstention unleashed a firestorm of criticism from the Jewish community, including ridiculous charges of anti-Semitism. Netanyahu, pandering, called Obama “an enemy of Israel,” this though the United States is unquestionably Israel’s staunchest ally and just inked an epic 10-year $38 billion military aid package. NY Times writer Tom Friedman, well steeped in the subject, says of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, he has “never met two U.S. leaders more committed to Israel as a Jewish democracy.”
Without a two-state solution, which recognizes Palestine’s right to exist as a functioning sovereign entity, Israel can either be Jewish or a democracy. As Kerry said, it cannot be both. As a single state containing the West Bank and Gaza, given demographics, Palestinians could dilute or dissolve Israel’s Jewishness. To preserve itself as a Jewish state, it would have to oppress and disenfranchise Palestinians in what would amount to a form of apartheid. Neither alternative is acceptable.
President Obama and Secretary Kerry insist, with credibility, that settlement expansion undermines the possibility of that two-state solution. Netanyahu occasionally gives lip service to the two-state concept, but his actions (and his boast of being the most settlement-friendly prime minister) make his commitment seem hollow. (It may be that Netanyahu’s primary interest is just holding onto power, which for now requires his alignment with the right wing in Israel, opponents of a two-state solution.)
The settlements aren’t the only impediment to peace, of course. Historically, whenever the two sides have negotiated agreements or are coming close, violence has erupted, rooted in the refusal of Palestinians and other Arab states to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Their children’s textbooks don’t even display maps that include Israel. Reportedly, Obama agreed to abstain on the U.N. resolution because it contained language criticizing violence and terrorism. That wording was thin gruel at best. This weak claim to balance shouldn’t have given him cover to abstain. Internationalizing the conflict at the U.N. now is the wrong move. That body has repeatedly shown it is not yet able to be an honest broker in resolving this conflict.
As with previous Resolutions, this one includes both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and could be used to limit Israelis’ access to significant sites, including the Western Wall, Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. Even before the vote, Donald Trump had promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. In the wake of the abstention, law professor Alan Dershowitz argues compellingly to do just that. My concern is for the unintended consequences. What additional problems and violence would be provoked? What will happen to the incipient relations between Israel and Sunni Arab countries brought together to confront Iran? Would other Arab nations insist the United States move its embassies from their capitals?
Clearly, things are going from bad to worse. In the past, Israeli courts have struck down the legality of the settlements; now the Knesset is considering legislation to make them retroactively legal. UN Resolution 2334 is a tool to delegitimize Israel internationally. It gives energy to Arab nations and others who would push the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement. It opens up new opportunities to take Israel to the International Criminal Court. Could the United States have continued to oppose the settlements without giving this satisfaction to Israel’s enemies? Perhaps not. Certainly hundreds of meetings with Netanyahu haven’t yielded any success. And now, with the U.N. activated, Palestinians have even less incentive to engage in direct negotiations.
American Jews have long viewed Israel as a source of pride, a special place, a virtuous democracy, successful economically, “a light unto other nations.” Today’s reality is a lot less lofty and a lot more complex than that. Both sides in the conflict are driven by extremists’ visions of God-given rights to the entire land. But, in the wake of the Resolution, it’s upsetting to see Israel becoming more isolated in the world. It’s disturbing to see the relationship between our two countries getting murkier. It’s concerning to see the ascendancy of a new tri-partite collaboration among Russia, Iran and Turkey exerting power over events in the Middle East, with the United States not even at the table.
The Obama administration has many things to be proud of as it leaves office. The situation in the Middle East is not one of them. President Trump could make matters even worse.
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