Two-state Solution: U.S. Jews Won't Budge. Will It Cost Them Their Relationship With Israel?

Supporting two states was not always a given for American Jews. But once it became the preferred solution, while Israelis grew increasingly skeptical, it drove the two biggest Jewish communities in the world apart

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A Jewish protester demonstrating against the occupation.
A Jewish protester demonstrating against the occupation.

When it comes to the two-state solution and the American Jewish community, the old joke about “two Jews, three synagogues” simply doesn’t apply.

The alphabet soup of organizations comprising the so-called American Jewish establishment – from the muscular pro-Israel AIPAC to the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street, through the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, the policy arms of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America and the rest – are all in lockstep agreement that a two-state solution is a declared goal to securing a Jewish and democratic state.

>> Benjamin Netanyahu, the undertaker of the two-state solution | Analysis ■ Two states, one and other solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict | Explained ■ Two-state solution: U.S. Jews won't budge. Will it cost them their relationship with Israel? ■ On a clear day in the West Bank, you can see the Israel you lost forever | WATCH

Though the leadership of such groups isn’t elected, they faithfully reflect their constituency on this issue. Surveys conducted over the past decade show that these major bodies of American Jewry support the solution their rank-and-file believe in: In poll after poll, the vast majority of American Jews - who vote in large numbers for the Democratic Party - see two states as the best way forward.

But as Israelis, reflected in the make-up of the current government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, become increasingly skeptical of – and in some cases strongly opposed to – the realization of the vision of Jewish and Palestinian states living side by side, U.S. Jewry’s solid identification with a two-state vision has become a problem.

Increasingly, it is driving the two biggest Jewish communities in the world apart.

This embrace of the two-state vision by American Jewry is so inextricably tight, it feels as if it’s been that way forever. But it hasn’t. When he arrived in Washington, D.C. as a young Haaretz correspondent in the early 1990s, Ori Nir recalls clearly how, at the first AIPAC conference he attended, “one of the unofficial sports of participants when they met with elected U.S. officials, was competing to see who could extract the most explicit and categorical statements opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC conference Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

“The very thought, the very idea of the establishment of a Palestinian state was anathema at the time,” says Nir, who is now the spokesman of American Friends for Peace Now. “It was one of the main no-nos - a rule that could not be broken if one cared about the future of the State of Israel.”

The stance reflected the fierce opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud Party to the idea of Palestinian self-determination, as well as a feeling among the Israeli public that a Palestinian state would endanger the existence of the Jewish one.

Within only a few years, this situation would be dramatically altered by the unveiling of the Oslo Accords, which radically changed the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Suddenly, Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was not only engaged in a process with a Palestinian state as its end goal, but was also working with Bill Clinton, a deeply engaged Democratic U.S. president who was intensely popular with American Jews.

Shimon Peres signs the Oslo Accords, watched by Andrei Kozyrev, Yitzhak Rabin, President Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat, Warren Christopher and Mahmoud Abbas, Washington, D.C., September 13, 1993Credit: Avi Ochayon/GPO

Despite President Clinton’s engagement, it took time for attitudes in the American Jewish establishment to catch up to the rapidly-changing events. There is evidence that the process did not move speedily enough for Rabin. It was with his encouragement that one organization - Israeli Policy Forum - was set up to “mobilize prominent Jewish leaders and American policymakers in support of pragmatic approaches to advancing Israel’s security alongside the pursuit of a lasting negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

On the ground

That mission was more than successfully accomplished. In the post-Oslo era, the two-state solution has become ingrained into the DNA of American Jewish organizations and, with their encouragement, pursued intensively by the Clinton, Obama and both Bush White Houses.

In Israel, however, there is nothing close to a consensus when it comes to two states. While U.S. Jewry may have shifted toward embracing the two-state vision, the opposite trend has occurred in Israel, where the post-Oslo euphoria has slowly been replaced with disenchantment and bitterness over the viability of such a solution.

Sheldon Adelson and Naftali Bennett at the Ariel University Credit: \ Moti Milrod

Even those in the political center acknowledge that a Palestinian state is not viable in the foreseeable future - a reality reflected by the reluctance of centrist candidates in the current election campaign to support it. On the right, it is seen as a recipe for a disaster. They are able to make a convincing case against it, even to Israelis who are not ideologically attached to the occupied territories - asking voters if they “want another Gaza” on their doorstep in the West Bank.

“American Jews are farther from the reality on the ground,” says Nir, who personally supports the two-state solution. “When you are in Israel, you see the settlements, the roads, the infrastructure in the West Bank. But more than that, you are continually exposed to the rhetoric of the government which is antagonistic to the two-state solution. So in Israel, even if you support [two states] - you internalize the idea that it isn’t viable.”

Most Israelis share the ambivalence reflected in the dual messaging of their prime minister, whose position on two states seems to shift from opposition at home to displaying a greater willingness to compromise abroad. At the White House last September, Netanyahu chose his words carefully, saying that “everyone defines the term ‘state’ differently,” adding that “I am willing for the Palestinians to have the authority to rule themselves without the authority to harm us.”

Ori NirCredit: Americans for Peace Now

Asked to clarify by the Israeli journalists travelling with him, he said: “Israel will not relinquish security control west of Jordan. This will not happen so long as I am prime minister and I think the Americans understand that.”

The divide between the American Jewish consensus and the position of Israel’s right-wing government was on display at last year’s AIPAC conference. Right-wing government ministers, whose one-state messages were not welcome on the main stage, held their own parallel event in Washington at a nearby synagogue, co-sponsored by the Yesha Council, which represent the settlement movement and the Israeli government’s Strategic Affairs Ministry. The event featured far-right Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and Likud minister Yuval Steinitz, as well as a video address from Minister Gilad Erdan.

Israeli politicians on the right who shun the two-state offer varying alternatives, from applying Israel sovereignty to the 62 percent of the West Bank known as Area C, where Israeli settlements are located, to the annexation of the entire territory, with suggestions ranging from transferring Palestinians to a different county to giving them citizenship (accompanied by a mandatory declaration of loyalty to the state).

Ideological split

The consensus in the United States is not absolute - there is a muscular minority among U.S. Jews who never bought the idea of two states. Right-leaning Orthodox Jews, who savor an ideological connection to the biblical sites in the West Bank and ties to the religious Zionist settlement movement, have maintained a distaste for the idea of a Palestinian state.

“The denominations have long been split on the two-state solution, a shift toward a one-state vision [referring to one political entity that would include Israel and the Palestinian territories] might be more in line with the thinking of Orthodox American Jewry,” notes Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn, Visiting Assistant Professor of Israel Studies at Northwestern University and author of City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967.

But the ideological split is not only along denominational lines. One of the most powerful opponents of two states among American Jews is casino billionaire and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who parted ways with the major pro-Israel lobby AIPAC over the issue.

AIPAC has a clear stance, stating in its policy platform that “durable Israeli-Palestinian peace can best be achieved through direct negotiations between the two parties, resulting in a Jewish state living side-by-side in peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state.” AIPAC’s policy aims at maintaining bipartisan support for Israel and is in lockstep with the rest of the American Jewish establishment organizations.

Dr. Sara Yael HirschhornCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Adelson, in keeping with his opposition to two states, underwrites groups that reflect such views, notably the Zionist Organization of America and the Israeli American Council, and donates generously to Republican politicians - including Donald Trump. The recipients of his largesse are, if not vocally opposed to a peace process aimed at achieving two states, at least not enthusiastic about pursuing it.

Unlike Nir, Lenny Ben David is no fan of the two-state vision, although he doesn’t see the Jewish establishment changing its regard for it any time soon. Ben David was an AIPAC executive for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem, later serving as an Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he is director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

AIPAC’s mandate, he says, is to remain bipartisan, and as a “realpolitik” organization, they “recognize that they can’t keep the Democratic Party on board... by cutting out the mantra that two states is the ideal solution - even though we in Israel are way beyond that.”

Ben-David stresses that while he is not currently party to the inside workings of American Jewish leadership, many are living in what he considers a dream world. Americans “are stuck in this fantasy never-never land from 15 years ago and think [a Palestinian state is] viable, so they keep playing the game of meeting with both sides.”

In today’s American political reality, he says, “one can’t attack or challenge two states - that is viewed as being pro-Netanyahu or pro-Likud or pro-settler.”

A generational shift

The Orthodox and right-wing sectors of U.S. Jewry are not the only outliers to the overall adherence to the two-state solution, however. The attitudes of the younger generation of American Jewry may indicate a changing tide in U.S. Jewish sentiment.

This scenario worries Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. While there may be little danger, he says, of the current American Jewish leadership “checking out” of their relationship with the Jewish state if Israel abandons a two-state goal outright – the situation with younger American Jews is a different story.

This “older generation of liberal Zionists either have a recollection of pre-67 realities or a recollection of the Oslo process and the two-state solution - or both. These people are all connected and they are going to stay connected to Israel as a Jewish state,” says Kurtzer. That connection, he believes, will endure “even if they get angry and frustrated with Israel’s abandonment of its two-state aspirations or irritated by its inconsistency with regard to these aspirations.”

The future will be far more complicated, he warns.

Soon, the institutions of American Jewish life will be led by those for whom Oslo is ancient history, who “have never experienced an Israeli government actively working for a two-state solution” and who are coming of age in a “radically polarized era, one in which people are far more open when it comes to major ideological differences between right and left.”

This polarization opens the door to one-state ideas on both the right and the left. There will be those on the Orthodox right - which is growing exponentially both demographically and organizationally - who will prioritize the survival of a Jewish state at any price. But there is also a growing number on the left whose social justice ideals trump the importance of Jewish sovereignty.

Protesters outside the Birthright gala event in New York, April 15, 2018Credit: Ben Lorber, Jewish Voice for Peace

The one-state solution advocated on the left centers on a binational state or a single democratic state in which all Israelis and Palestinians are equal citizens. The main difference between the left and right’s one-state visions is the questions of whether Palestinians will be granted political rights

The two-state vision has already lost its appeal to young progressive Jews who resist what they see the Trump administration - and the Netanyahu government – as representing: walls, separation, and “ethno-nationalism.”

Young American Jews may not be ideologically anti-Zionist, but – distanced from the trauma of the Holocaust and generally averse to displays of nationalism – they are increasingly agnostic when it comes to the need for Jewish sovereignty and a national Jewish home. This is paving the way, both Nir and Kurtzer believe, for a growing number of young America Jews who are attracted to the idea of resolving the conflict by creating a non-sectarian state for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.

“For young American Jews, the non-sectarian one state idea has become more and more appealing,” explains Nir. “First of all, because what they see when they go to Israel is a one-state reality. So, they ask, how can we apply Tikkun Olam [the Jewish concept of Repairing the World] to this reality? In a very simplistic way, they believe in healing it by giving everyone equal rights. An egalitarian society from the river to the sea, jibes more with justice and equality than a two-state vision involving walls and separation. They may not be opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state and Palestinian sovereignty - but the idea of one state appeals to them more.”

For this group, he says, an Israeli government that moves in the direction of annexation could ironically be “a liberating development - freeing their natural tendency to prefer a rights-based discourse over dealing with politics and security and a focus on nationalism that feels dated.”

1.7044177Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

“It would validate a shift from activism supporting two states to an activism reflecting the values that come to them more naturally - that simpler fight for justice and equality,” Nir summarizes.

But Alyssa Rubin, a 24-year-old Boston member of the leftist anti-occupation group IfNotNow, says the issue isn’t whether a one-state solution is more or less attractive to her generation - it is acknowledging that Israel has “been working to prevent a two-state solution for years.”

“Saying the current Israeli government aspires to two states is like saying the NRA aspires to stop gun violence in schools or the fossil fuel industry aspires to save our planet,” she says.

By continuing to offer “lip service” to the two-state line, she adds, American Jewish organizations have been complicit by “obscuring the fact that what exists on the ground in Israel-Palestine is a one-state reality” and “have perpetuated the occupation and made the two-state solution increasingly unlikely by silencing legitimate criticism of Israel and by insulating Israel from any international pressure that might have let it to stop settlement expansion. This has been the case for nearly our entire lives.”

Benjamin Gladstone, former president of Brown University Students for Israel and currently a Fulbright scholar in Jerusalem, disagrees.

During his sojourn in Israel, he admits, “I have been hearing from Israelis a lot more than I do from Americans that a two-state solution is no longer feasible. But I don’t think we’re there yet and I hope we don’t get there. True, Netanyahu and Trump are clearly marching in the wrong direction. But there is still time and I think it is mostly a consensus among young American Jews that a two-state solution is feasible and something to strive for.”Israel’s official abandonment of the two-state goal, if it should happen, would “meet with bitter disappointment from the young pro-Israel community in America in my generation and with smug satisfaction with the anti-Israel community.” More personally, he said, “it would be a real blow to the way that I understand Israel and its place in the Jewish world and my own identity.”

Benjamin GladstoneCredit: Rachel Berman

Nir has spent much time in recent years explaining to young American Jews why, in his view, even the most ideal imagining of a permanent one-state situation is a non-starter.

“Israeli Jews will never give up on their dream of an independent sovereign state and the Palestinians won’t give up their national dream, either,” he tells them.

“So as I see it there is no one-state “solution” there is only a one-state “scenario.” And that scenario, he believes - as do most American Jewish groups - is “a recipe for perpetual conflict.”

Beyond the generational and religious divisions, Hirschhorn says, “perhaps the most important outcome of a one-state position” on Israel’s part would be “magnification of the widening gap between any kind of shared vocabulary or vision between American and Israeli Jews.”

“The support of large sectors of Israel’s leadership - presumably with the endorsement of the voting public - for the State of Israel’s annexation of part or all of the West Bank or a continuation of the status quo of the occupation without any hope of negotiated resolution brings into stark relief the very different thinking (and realities) of Israeli and American Jews.”

It would make clear, once and for all, she says, “that a common heritage of Judaism, culture, and tradition cannot overcome realpolitik of the nation-state” and predicts that if such a scenario comes to pass, “it would change the face of Jewish peoplehood.”