Hidden in Netanyahu's Key Demand: Risk to U.S.-Israel Ties

What if Bibi's Jewish state recognition ultimatum works too well, sinking the two-state option? And what if Americans then prefer that the one nation no longer be a Jewish state?

Is there anything – anything at all - that could harm Israel's ties with the United States?

God knows, some Israelis have tried. For years now, there's been a strong current of anti-Americanism on the Israeli far-right. Whether it be a radical settler referring to Barack Obama as "that Kushon" (a Hebrew slur which manages to combine "boy" with the N word), or, just last week, Likud Beiteinu MK David Rotem, chair of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, snapping at U.S.  Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

When can we depend on you?" Rotem demanded of the envoy of Israel's crucial ally. "When did you stand by our side?

For his part, Benjamin Netanyahu has sought more sophisticated rejoinders to Washington, none of them more effective and durable that his April, 2009 response to then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton's calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In talks with President Obama's peace envoy George Mitchell, Netanyahu declared "Israel expects the Palestinians to first recognize Israel as a Jewish state before talking about two states for two peoples."

For the prime minister, it seemed like the perfect win-win - the ultimate Swiss Army Knife of delaying tactics: Compact, many-faceted, and long-lasting. It took some of the heat off of rabid settlement expansion, while appearing to put Palestinians, whose reasons for refusal were valid but complex, somewhat on the defensive. In the end, it spurred his government's assertions that Palestinians were ideologically/culturally against peace with the Jews, and always would be.

And so it has been, for nearly five years. But a public opinion poll of Americans, released this week, suggests a distinctly uncomfortable new angle on the Jewish state recognition ultimatum:

What happens if it works too well?

What happens if the recognition ultimatum is enough to scuttle the two-state solution once and for all? What happens if the far-right has its way, and no independent Palestinian state will arise alongside Israel?

And what happens if what Americans would then prefer, is that the one nation in the Holy Land no longer be a Jewish state?

The poll showed that if Washington's push for a two-state solution ended in failure, some two-thirds of Americans who now support a two-state solution, would back the creation of one state with equal rights for Jews and Arabs.

"Even among respondents who said they wanted American diplomacy to 'lean toward Israel,'" wrote pollster Shibley Telhami, in a Sunday article in Foreign Policy, "52 percent said they would support one state with equal citizenship - which could, of course, mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state."

In the absence of an option of a Jewish and democratic state – which effectively would cease to exist with the collapse of the two-state option and a country including millions of disenfranchised Palestinians - respondents were given a choice of statements with which they most closely identified.

Nearly two-thirds said "I favor Israel's democracy more than its Jewishness. I support a single democratic state in which Arabs and Jews are equal."

Less than a quarter of respondents, meanwhile, identified with a statement effectively much closer to the present slippery slope: "I favor the Jewishness of Israel more than its democracy. I support the continuation of Israel's Jewish majority even if it means that Palestinians will not have citizenship and full rights."

If the two-state solution fails, Telhami concluded, "the conversation among the American public might shift to that of a one-state solution as the next-best thing. If American officials feel pressured to respond to this, it will likely create tension in U.S.-Israeli relations."

For Netanyahu, should he decide to take the results of the poll seriously, the ramifications are unsettling. Until now, he and his coalition partners have taken comfort in citing the take-it-or-leave-it Jewish state recognition call as the litmus test of whether Palestinians will ever be sincere in making peace with Israel.

Their line of thinking was based on an essential assumption, though, that the available options were limited to the two-state option and some indefinitely extendable version of the present status quo. That is, a Jewish – and permanent – State of Israel in either case.

Perhaps, though, things actually do happen for a reason. Maybe it's not simply coincidence that a single week has seen the convergence of a number of oddly interrelated events.

Imagine – half a million Israelis swarming onto and paralyzing the entrance of the nation's capital, all to publicly declare that they refuse compulsory military duty.
This, on a week when a shaken, insecure and bewildered AIPAC met in Washington; Israeli Apartheid Week lobbied across America for boycotts and opposition to Israeli occupation; yet another new and sweeping anti-democratic bill was proposed by Israel's sweetheart, Likud MK Miri Regev; Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics announced that new settlement housing construction more than doubled last year to a ten-year high; and Russian military intervention into a neighboring country threatened to render the visiting Netanyahu's deepest concerns as secondary at best.

If nothing else, Netanyahu could do us all, President Obama included, a favor by letting us know where he truly stands on two states. After all this time, he should let the Palestinians in on it, as well.

The least the prime minister owes us is to tell the truth. About democracy, too. To give us all a chance to, well, consider our options.

Daniel Bar On