Commentary Magazine


The Make Believe Argument Over Israel

This week, the American Jewish Committee earned the plaudits of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen for issuing a direct denunciation of Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister, for saying that the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict was dead. The statement blasted Bennett, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi Party that had an impressive showing in last January’s Knesset election in the following manner:

Minister Naftali Bennett’s remarks, rejecting outright the vision of two states for two peoples, are stunningly shortsighted,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris. “Since he is a member of the current Israeli coalition government, it is important that his view be repudiated by the country’s top leaders.”

“Bennett contravenes the outlook of Prime Minister Netanyahu and contradicts the vision presented earlier this month to the AJC Global Forum by Minister Tzipi Livni, chief Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians,” Harris continued. “Livni stated clearly that a negotiated two-state settlement is the only way to assure that the State of Israel will remain both Jewish and democratic. That is a view we at AJC have long supported.”

“We are under no illusion about the difficulties of achieving a two-state accord,” Harris concluded. “But Bennett’s alternative scenario offers only the prospect of a dead-end strategy of endless conflict and growing isolation for Israel.”

While liberal on domestic policy, the AJC has been solidly pro-Israel under Harris’ tenure, so his decision to call out a member of an Israeli government is more than a little unusual and it was enough to send both Cohen, who has solidly opposed the AJC’s pro-Israel policies, into spasms of joy that were echoed by one of the writers on the Open Zion website. They hope that this constitutes a turning point in the relationship between American Jewish organizations and the Jewish state. Their notion is this is the moment when the pro-Israel community will cease being a bulwark for Jerusalem and begin to throw its weight behind efforts to pressure the country into concessions that leftists think will save it from itself. If groups like AJC start acting like the decidedly non-mainstream left-wingers of J Street and condemning settlements and calling for Israel to accept the 1967 borders, then they imagine Israel’s resistance to such measures will be broken down when faced with the loss of its American Jewish allies.

Cohen and the Open Zion crowd are wrong about that. But it’s not just that they are overestimating the willingness of mainstream groups to challenge the judgment of a democratically elected Israeli government. The dustup between the AJC and Bennett as well as other members of Netanyahu’s government is not so much about whether these right-wingers are actually thwarting a two-state solution, as Harris’s statement seemed to be saying, but whether it was appropriate for him to not to play along with the pretense that such a scheme is possible in the foreseeable future. Reading much significance into the admonition aimed at Bennett is a mistake because although he and the AJC do disagree about what a solution to the conflict might be, it is not exactly a secret that Palestinian intransigence makes this a purely theoretical dispute.

Most American Jews—including those in mainstream groups—may not agree with Bennett that a two-state solution is a bad idea in principle. But like most Israelis, most of those who are informed about the reality that Israel faces understand that it isn’t happening anytime soon no matter what the Netanyahu government or American Jews say about it. The Palestinians have turned down three offers of statehood including a share of Jerusalem and have boycotted negotiations for four and a half years. They also understand that the left’s focus on what Israel must supposedly do to secure peace is irrelevant because so long as the Palestinians refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, these questions aren’t much more relevant that the old one about how many angels can dance on the head of pin.

Like Netanyahu, leading American Jewish groups are publicly supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to revive the peace process. Unlike Cohen most understand the secretary has sent himself on a fool’s errand. Pointing this fact out, as Bennett has done, may not help Israel’s diplomatic position or its image. But it also doesn’t really change a thing. 

Harris is right that Bennett is undermining Israel’s public image in the West since such statements do feed into the false notion that most Israelis don’t want to compromise. That’s also a myth because, as I wrote earlier this week, even Bennett probably knows that if the Palestinians would ever to come back to the table and offer a complete end to the conflict and a renunciation of the right of return, most of his countrymen would be willing to make far-ranging sacrifices of territory that he wouldn’t like.

If most Israelis have given up on the two-state solution for the near term it is not because, like Bennett, they don’t want it, but because, unlike Cohen and other leftists, they’ve paid attention to what’s happened during the last 20 years of peace processing. Israelis need no urging to make risks for peace if peace was really in the offing. The problem is that it isn’t. The Palestinians have made such a deal impossible and there’s no sign that the sea change necessary in their political culture to make two states a viable solution is on the horizon. As unpalatable as this may be, even many liberal American Jews are coming to understand that all Israel can do is to wait until it happens.

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