‘A new page’ in US-Israel relations depends on the Palestinians too

The crux of the problem is that the basic ingredients of a full, comprehensive and conclusive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians do not exist.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, May 22, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/KHALIL MAZRAAWI)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, May 22, 2015.
(photo credit: AFP/KHALIL MAZRAAWI)
Already in the 1940s, even before the end of World War II, David Ben-Gurion had come the conclusion that the realization of Jewish statehood and the security of the future Jewish state were closely linked primarily to the United States, not Britain as Chaim Weizmann, among others, still believed. Israel’s policies, with one exception in 1956, have adhered to this understanding - and will not and cannot diverge from it - even though there have also been and probably will continue to be disagreements on certain issues.
This basic conclusion leads, among other things, to upholding the principle of Israeli bipartisanship toward American politics - even if American politicians themselves do not. Over the years it has become a virtual truism that the basis for the Israeli- American relationship is shared values and common strategic interests. 
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As to the values, this basically means democracy, human rights, equality before the law, freedom of religion, etc. On the whole, the criterion of common values does reflect reality in Israel - and I shall not go into the question to what extent it still fully and practically reflects reality in a changing America.
By the way, I think it was a wonderful thing that the congregation at my former synagogue in Washington, DC, Adas Israel, was lately given an opportunity to hear a very erudite and eloquent speech on the question of values and on common American-Israeli concerns, though it would have been unfair to the speaker to expect from him or some of his advisers a real, visceral understanding of what being Jewish is all about - or of the real concerns and hopes of Israel, as opposed to their representation in the articles of Peter Beinart or Jeffrey Goldberg.
Israel has indeed changed over the years, largely for the better, though this may be a matter of opinion.
But America, too, is changing, not just geopolitically, but also culturally and ethnically. The Jewish community in America is changing too - there is greater acceptance of Jews in America by non-Jews, though perhaps only on the surface. There is intermarriage and assimilation, but more significantly and more worryingly Israel no longer occupies the same central place in Jewish American life as it has since 1948. And this is worrying not just for Israel but also for American Jewry - at least for those who want to remain being Jews. For the Orthodox this won’t be a problem; they will remain Jewish.
But to the more liberal and secular, Israel and support for it was the main coalescent, and questioning this could affect the very future and cohesion of American Jewry. Israel could do more than it does about this, but the main task is up to the leaders of the American Jewish community itself.
Is everything perfect on the Israeli side? Of course it isn’t, God forbid! Who wants to live in a country where there isn’t a single thing to criticize - especially if one is Jewish.
But Israel in most respects is what a democratic state and society should be. It is open, it is free, it is pluralistic to an extent that few other countries, including sometimes the US, have achieved. It has a liberal abortion policy, which most American states do not. There is absolutely free expression in all branches of the media, even when it comes to the most extreme possible positions, both Left and Right. It doesn’t have the death sentence as most states in the US still do.
But does all this apply only to the Jewish population? Yes, in some matters it does, and the deficiencies in this respect must be corrected, but nor can this be divorced from the question of how Israeli Arabs choose to regard themselves politically, culturally, etc.
Bringing the Palestinians into the equation, as some do, is disingenuous.
If Israel were to annex the “territories” the question of full equality for their residents would indeed be relevant, but as the international community - and not just it - has declared the “West Bank” and even the Gaza Strip “occupied territory,” though we completely withdrew from there, the expectation that the same rules apply to Israeli citizens and the Palestinians in the “territories” implicitly rests on the assumption that they should be incorporated, legally and officially, into the State of Israel. One can’t have it both ways.
The strategic relationship question is a bit more complicated. Although Washington from the day of Israel’s inception was certainly sympathetic and supportive - it was also largely indifferent and even skeptical, especially in military matters. This changed after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. This has not changed, in spite of occasional clashes on other matters, or personal differences between leaders. On the contrary, the security relationship is continually getting stronger – also, perhaps, because objectively speaking the threats posed today by political Islam are no less serious than those of the Cold War. What is worrying to Israel these days is the possibility of the US increasingly withdrawing into its own shell – with the implications for its interests and alliances in the world and especially the Middle East.
In this context, but also beyond – the Iranian nuclear issue will continue to play a major role in the Israel-US relationship, for better or for worse. Should there be no agreement with Tehran, Jerusalem and Washington will have to see how to coordinate their policies and possible actions; if there is an agreement, and as it currently seems there will be, a bad one – Israel will have to consider its steps, politically, diplomatically and possibly otherwise, hopefully without creating a fatal gap in its ties with America. Like on the Palestinian issue, as we shall see, this could put Israel before a choice between two or more unattractive options.
As to the future of what is euphemistically called the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, one may, of course, remark that in view of the goings-on in the Middle East, from Ramadi to Benghazi, it should be clear to anyone with eyes and a brain in his head that the Palestinian issue, solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, though important on its own terms is not the main or even a very central element in the general chaos in the region. But some people cannot separate themselves from the arguments on which they have built their careers – and in view of the apparent lack of solutions with regard to all other problems in the Middle East, one can always fall back on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In this context one must judge the confrontation between the moderate Sunni states and Israel on the one hand, and an expansionist and nuclearizing Iran on the other hand, and determine how these relate to US policy in the Middle East, a central factor pertaining to the ties between the US and Israel.
BUT COMING back to the Palestinian question - well, “turning a new page,” as some propose, may just mean discovering another blank page. The crux of the problem is that the basic ingredients of a full, comprehensive and conclusive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians do not exist.
The Palestinian side adamantly and consistently refuses to accept the fundamental right of the Jewish people to a state. This is not a whim on their part, but a basic component of their deepest belief and strategy. At most, Israel is regarded by them as an inconvenient and temporary reality, sustained by its military, economic and technological might and by its relationship with the US – but not something to be accepted ideologically and permanently.
Therefore, compromise on issues which have come up in all negotiations so far - and are bound to come up again – such as the so-called “right of return,” Temple Mount, Jerusalem and, of course, recognizing Israel as the Jewish state, is rejected by them because they regard it as being conducive to abandoning their basic ideological positions.
On the Israeli side, through all governments and leaderships, this reality has only gradually been understood, giving rise to other supposedly possible options – “one state for two peoples” on both the more extreme Right and extreme Left, and “two states for two peoples” as championed by the Israeli center-left and most of the international community, including, of course, the US.
However, in reality - contrary to political “wisdom” - this is actually not a choice between good and bad, but between two negatives. The more negative in the long run in my view - which is shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - is the first alternative, namely “one state for two peoples,” as this would inexorably destroy Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision of the “State of the Jews” as well as the precept of democracy.
But hardly less negative and dangerous would be the creation of a Palestinian state which under present circumstances, just as inexorably, would immediately be taken over by irredentist or jihadist forces, which in view of the current situation in the Middle East, means extreme Sunni actors or a radical Iran, or both. Therefore, Netanyahu’s “not on my watch” was not an expression of dogmatism, but rather of practical and cautionary necessity.
Though there is the oft-repeated mantra that “the status quo is not sustainable,” it is in fact this very mantra which has not been sustained so far. This doesn’t mean that the status quo is desirable or that there can’t be interim steps taken to change conditions in the Palestinian territories, not only economically but also in the matter of advancing self-administration and improving governance. Written, formal agreements of peace are presently unachievable, as they were before – but creating new and practical realities, acceptable to both sides on a de facto basis, perhaps might be.
This doesn’t exclude possible unilateral steps by Israel, provided they are part of a comprehensive strategic approach - as the disengagement from Gaza was not. I suppose that Israel could also clarify its longterm intentions by differentiating between building and developing in the “settlement blocs” and Jerusalem on the one hand - and other areas on the other hand. One thing should be absolutely clear, however, whatever the political or legal definition of the future status of the Palestinian territories: Israel will have to continue its military and other security related presence there — and not only in the Jordan Valley.
The so-called “Arab Peace Initiative” wasn’t really about negotiated peace but rather a take-it-or-leave-it dictate to Israel. There were some positive elements in it, but in any case, the situation in the Middle East has radically changed since then, as has the role of many of the players.
Still, the aim of seeking rational and effective ways to deal with the Palestinian issue can and should be advanced by understandings between Israel and its Arab neighbors, based, among other things, on common geopolitical interests.
All in all, turning a new page in the US-Israel relationship, as some suggest, will largely depend on what both sides decide to write on it - hoping that the cover of the book remains as solid as before.
The author is a former ambassador to the United States.