WASHINGTON – One thing that stood out during the three days of discussions at the Saban Forum were the stunned glances that the American participants, the vast majority of whom came from the Democratic side of the U.S. political map, exchanged with each other as they heard what representatives of the Israeli right had to say. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beiteinu party chairman Avigdor Lieberman left their American listeners with feelings that ranged between frustration, shock and helplessness.
The lip service that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to pay to the two-state solution no longer makes any impression on almost anyone in Washington. Senior officials in the U.S. administration and the Democratic Party listened to the senior Israeli government officials from the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi parties and understood that their real policy, in the best case, is a one-and-a-half-state solution – one in which Israel controls most of the West Bank and the Palestinians have an autonomous zone comprised of several cantons.
The speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, which brimmed with frustration, is the best possible example of this. During a monologue that was all about letting off his pent-up steam, he urged his audience to stop pretending. The series of questions he posed in his speech about the Netanyahu government’s policy on the Palestinian issue came straight from the heart of a man who loves Israel with all his might. They were questions that most Israeli cabinet ministers ignore, or else dismiss offhandedly by saying, “Trust us, it’ll be okay.”
After three years of nonstop efforts, albeit sometimes clumsy ones, to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, Kerry seemed to be throwing up his hands. “It’s up to both sides to take the steps necessary to make peace possible,” he said, noting that if that happens, the U.S. would be ready to help. Even if he didn’t say so explicitly, his message to both Israelis and Palestinians was, “I’m done. You’ll have to manage by yourselves.”
It's safe to assume that Netanyahu and his aides are hoping that a Republican president will win the 2016 election. Such a scenario is within the realm of possibility, but it is more likely at this time that Netanyahu will find Hillary Clinton in the White House. The former secretary of state's speech at the Saban Forum on Sunday showed that her policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won't be much different from that of Obama and Kerry.
She has been dealing with the issue for the past 20 years, and isn't giving the impression that she intends to stop. Despite the fact that she is in the middle of an election campaign, her dependence on donors and the concern that her Republican rivals could peg her as an anti-Israel candidate, Clinton didn't shy away from making clear where she stands on issues like settlement construction, the two-state solution and Israel's need to take initiative and confidence building steps toward the Palestinians.
The conclusion reached by many senior members of the Obama administration, as well as those who might hold key positions in the Clinton administration, is that the Democratic Party in the U.S. and the Israeli government are two entities living in parallel universes that are drifting apart and are unlikely to converge. A similar feeling is harbored by numerous senior officials in Jerusalem and the Israeli right. The American side can't understand why Israel isn't obsessively searching for a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, while the Israeli side can't understand why the entire world is so obsessed with the Palestinian issue.
This is especially disconcerting in light of the fact that this attitude is held by a party that represents at least half of Americans. It is even more worrying that most U.S. Jews, who identify with the Democratic Party, who voted for Obama and will vote for Clinton, also feel this way. They are shocked by Israeli government ministers' remarks. They either can't understand where the Israeli government is heading, or they do understand but prefer to block it out and accept this as a nightmare that will pass.
One can't help but wonder whether the ties between Israel and the U.S. can remain as strong and strategic as they are today after another decade or two of diplomatic deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without separation between Israel and the Palestinians, amid a one-and-a-half-state reality, is it still possible to maintain the two myths accompanying Israel-U.S. relations – shared interests and shared values?
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