Two and a half years ago, when Secretary of State John Kerry launched his bid to midwife a Palestinian state, he warned that, “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.” Subsequent events have proven him right. The era of the American-led peace process, which began almost a quarter-century ago when George H. W. Bush and James Baker dragged Israelis and Palestinians to a conference in Madrid, likely ended when Kerry’s peace mission collapsed last year. 2014 was the year of death. In 2015, America said Kaddish.
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President Barack Obama said Kaddish by signing the Iran deal. To sustain the deal in Congress, he needed the support of Democrats. And in return for that support, Democrats demanded that Obama avoid any additional conflict with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Thus ensuring that they would face no additional conflict with AIPAC). Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid reportedly twice asked the White House to publicly promise to veto any United Nations resolution supporting a Palestinian state. The White House didn’t make that pledge, but close observers say the French, who have drafted such a resolution, are frustrated by America’s lack of enthusiasm. And Obama has largely stopped talking about two states. This September, for the first time since becoming president, he addressed the UN General Assembly without mentioning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all.
The presidential candidates have said Kaddish too. Nudging Israel to end its undemocratic control of the West Bank is so unpopular in today’s GOP that when Baker suggested doing so earlier this year in a speech to J Street, Jeb Bush threw his own father’s secretary of state under the bus.
And it’s not just the Republicans. In October, Hillary Clinton said, “It is very difficult to figure out how either the Palestinians or the Israelis can put together a [two-state] deal until they know what is going to happen in Syria, and until they know if Jordan will remain stable.” In other words, she endorsed Netanyahu’s view that there can be no Palestinian state until the Middle East calms down. She also proposed granting the Palestinians “autonomy” and “more authority over the territories they are largely responsible for,” Netanyahu-style language that has historically been code for maintaining Israeli military control over the West Bank.
Finally, the American public has said Kaddish. In the United States, 2015 was the year the “war on terror” returned. This April, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, 12 percent of Americans said they considered a terror strike in the United States “very likely.” By December, after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, that number hit 44 percent, the highest figure since the aftermath of 9/11. In June, according to Gallup, 14 times as many Americans cited the economy as their top concern as cited terrorism. By December, terrorism was issue No. 1.
America’s focus on ISIS has left little space in mainstream discourse for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the last Democratic and Republican presidential debates, the subject didn’t even come up.
Even when policymakers and pundits do discuss Israel-Palestine, they increasingly view it through the ISIS frame. Hillary Clinton says there can’t be a Palestinian state until America ensures that ISIS won’t take over Syria and Jordan. John Kerry frets about the possibility that “jihadis” might “come in” to the West Bank.
The new “war on terror” has even made it hard for progressives to promote the Palestinian cause. As Donald Trump and other Republicans have exploited public fear by proposing to discriminate against Muslims, the left has redirected some of its energy toward fighting Islamophobia. J Street has put out statements condemning Trump’s bigotry. Jewish Voices for Peace has organized rallies on behalf of Muslim rights. As laudable as these efforts are, they perpetuate a debate about American policy toward Muslims that eclipses the debate about American policy toward Palestinians.
With Obama, the presidential candidates and the media all focused on ISIS, the American struggle over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will for the foreseeable future occur off stage, as the BDS movement skirmishes with its opponents in the American Jewish establishment. This doesn’t mean the two-state solution is dead. It’s still the only outcome that enjoys widespread support among both Palestinians and Israeli Jews. But it does mean that the path toward it is unlikely to go through Washington. In the year to come, those of us who genuinely desire two sovereign, viable states must find new ways to legitimize Israel’s existence while delegitimizing its control of millions of West Bank Palestinians who lack basic human rights. A campaign to follow Europe, and begin labeling settlement goods in the United States, would be a good place to start.
After eleven months, when the period of saying Kaddish ends, the mourner goes out into a newly unfamiliar world, honoring the deceased’s memory by acting in their spirit. That’s our challenge as we approach 2016.