Is a rift forming between Congress and Israel on ‘two states’?

The absence of any talk from Washington about two states, coupled with the wait for the release of a Trump administration peace plan, has created a window of opportunity for right-wing politicians.

August 17, 2019 18:16
A CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION led by Democrat Steny Hoyer (right) and Republican Kevin McCarthy convene

A CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION led by Democrat Steny Hoyer (right) and Republican Kevin McCarthy convenes in Jerusalem this week. . (photo credit: ISRAEL HADARI)

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to challenge US congressional commitment to Israel at the height of what can only be described as a summer love fest for the Jewish state.

But Samaria Regional Council leader Yossi Dagan, known to seize political moments to his advantage, has done just that this week, when he attacked the House passage in July of an anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution.

The issue, of course, was not BDS – which Dagan, as a prominent settler leader, obviously opposes. The issue was that the resolution stated its concern that the boycott movement “does not favor” a two-state solution. The document, known as H. Res. 246, then went on – in the most broad and boiler-plate language possible – to tout two states.

It “reaffirms” the House’s “strong support for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in two states – a democratic Jewish State of Israel, and a viable, democratic Palestinian state – living side by side in peace, security and mutual recognition.”

The language is so benign that its placement in a congressional document just a mere three years ago would not even have raised an eyebrow.

The text, after all, merely takes a principled stand in favor of two states: a concept that has been endorsed by Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority since the signing of the 1993-1995 Oslo Accords.

Under the Obama administration – which held that the border between the two states should be at the pre-1967 lines – such vague US congressional two-state references without any territorial designations would have seemed to be pro-Israeli and to place Congress in lockstep with the Israeli government.

But for at least the last year, Dagan has questioned whether that kind of US and Israeli governmental support for a two-state solution still exists. In 2018, he took to task Israel’s premier lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for seemingly continuing to advocate for a two-state solution.

This week, in what almost seemed like a slap in the face to US congressional support on a major issue, Dagan orchestrated a mini diplomatic rebellion to drive home his belief that the two-state solution is not just passé, but dangerous.

This time, the settler leader took on not just AIPAC “for advancing Palestinian statehood,” but the US Congress as well. Dagan sent out a letter against the BDS resolution, with the signatures of 21 right-wing Knesset members, although there were no ministers or party heads among them.

THE SETTLER leader chose his timing well, as Israel this week and last hosted a 71-member congressional delegation on an AIPAC-sponsored trip. The trip was viewed as a diplomatic public relations coup for Israel, because it had an unusually high number of House representatives. It underscored the fact that for decades, Congress has been one of the steady pillars on which the US-Israel bond is built, irrespective of who sits in the White House.

Dagan also sent out the letter to the media just one day after House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, touted the BDS legislation as a major sign of bipartisan support for Israel at a Jerusalem press conference.

The measure, which was approved by 398 out of 435 House members, was also seen as a significant diplomatic victory for Israel against the BDS movement. It is particularly notable when contrasted with the European Union, which gave a boost to BDS with its support for the labeling of settler products as “Not made in Israel.”

But Dagan and the parliamentarians argued that using a two-state solution as a rationale for activity otherwise deemed pro-Israeli is dangerous. They took this step, even though the BDS resolution is not unique in its support of two states.

The office of Rep. Lee Michael Zeldin (R-New York), who co-sponsored the anti-BDS resolution, confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that the “text of the resolution as it relates to negotiated peace on the ground in and around Israel is entirely consistent with long-standing [US] policy. That part of the resolution was not new.”

Such a two-state pledge appears on numerous other resolutions relating to Israel, including one recognizing a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty; one that condemned UN 2016 Resolution 2334 against Israeli settlement activity; and general resolutions in support of Israel, including those that take action against Palestinian terrorism.

The left-wing group Peace Now has warned that Dagan’s moves are dangerous: “When it comes to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, what these MKs and their allies advocate for – a one-state ‘solution’ and perpetual occupation – is what is truly ‘dangerous for Israel’ and ‘worse than BDS’ – which is not surprising given how hard they try to delegitimize two-state advocates.”

By taking this step now, Dagan has seized an opportunity presented by the election cycle, which has essentially paralyzed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it comes to this topic.

After taking office in 2009, Netanyahu delivered his now-famous speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he spoke of two states for two peoples, and then stood by that policy statement during the Obama administration. He has never renounced it – but lately, electoral politics will not allow him to support it either.

That is because US President Donald Trump changed the discourse with regard to the two-state solution when, during a February 2017 press conference, he said: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”

His administration and the envoys working on his peace plan – Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – have refrained from speaking of a two-state solution, no matter what the border. The economic portion of the Trump peace plan published in June made no reference to Palestinian statehood.

Greenblatt has gone further and said that he prefers to use the words “neighborhoods” and “cities” to refer to the settlements.

THE ABSENCE of any talk from the White House about two states, coupled with the over-two-year wait for the release of a Trump administration peace plan, has created a window of opportunity for right-wing politicians – like Dagan – to disavow the idea of Palestinian statehood.

The question is whether the US Congress will follow suit.

Former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro tweeted this week that, “the idea that the bulk of Americans or members of Congress will be convinced by this line of argument, or will support Israeli policies of settlement expansion and annexation intended to prevent two states, is really misguided.”

He referenced a statement by Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who last month in Jerusalem said that, “If you want to have a democratic, secure Jewish state, I think you have to have two states to make that work.”

But as perhaps a harbinger of things to come, Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky proudly tweeted that he had not supported the BDS resolution. “I took some heat for being the only Republican to vote NAY on this bill. I stand by my vote. 21 members of the Israeli Knesset had an issue with this bill, because they read it, too.”

Given Netanyahu’s battle for the Right, the prime minister cannot weigh in on the matter, as he seeks to secure his place as the leader of the right wing against politicians who can easily disavow the two-state solution.

Indeed, the two-state solution has become so unpopular on the Right that Netanyahu is almost the only right-wing politician who has not rejected the idea of Palestinian statehood. Even the centrist Blue and White Party, the Likud’s chief rival, has not endorsed it. At the most, centrist and right-wing politicians speak of limited Palestinian autonomy.

In the last election, Netanyahu said that such a Palestinian state would endanger the Jewish state, but he has engaged in such a complicated diplomatic dance that he has kept open the ability to swear allegiance to either scenario, should necessity force him to do so.

Netanyahu's electoral concerns and the Trump administration's decision not to speak of a two-state solution in advance have allowed Dagan and right-wing politicians to freely publicize the idea that both the US and Israel have dropped the idea of Palestinian statehood. Even the PA believes this to be true.

Working in Dagan’s favor is the fact that the Israeli government’s policy guidelines on the prime minister’s website, albeit outdated, make no mention of two states. Two-state language present under Obama was not included in the US National Security Strategy published in 2017.

Dagan has argued that those absences were more determinate than Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan policy statement, which he has yet to renounce.

This week, Netanyahu did argue that Dagan was wrong. Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Strategic Affairs Ministry issued any public response to his letter. Nor did they respond to queries from the Post. AIPAC was similarly silent.

In the absence of a Trump peace plan, settler leaders and the Israeli Right are free to portray the two-state solution as passé. The only question is whether Congress will follow suit.

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