I hate to say this, but from where I sit as a concerned American Jew, the only person in the Israeli government who is making any sense right now is Avigdor Lieberman.
It is safe to say that I have never been a fan of Israel’s current defense minister. When Lieberman was elected to the Knesset in 2009, I described his election effort with the following words: “It was an outrageous, abominable, hate-filled campaign, brimming with incitement that, if left unchecked, could lead Israel to the gates of hell.”
Lieberman has done little over the years to make me change my views. But fair is fair. At the moment, when the Israeli right appears to have gone stark-raving mad, Lieberman has offered a voice that is mostly sane and reasonable. And in the process, he has been willing to incur the wrath of the settler movement — something that I especially appreciate since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other rightwing politicians never have the guts to do this. American Jews, including centrist ones like me, should be grateful for what Lieberman has done and should say so.
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The problem with the Israeli right, of course, is that it has been sucked into a bizarre euphoria about what they expect from a Trump administration. Right wingers and settler leaders are assuming that Trump will dump the two-state solution; will permit unrestricted settlement in the West Bank; will move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; will cancel the Iran deal; and will be guided in matters relating to Israel by Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, two low-level campaign officials.
The problem with these assumptions is that they are all unlikely to actually happen, or if they do, it will be in ways currently unanticipated by Israeli zealots. Mr. Trump may or may not care very much about Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it seems wildly unlikely that he will simply allow Israel to build settlements at will.
There are, to be sure, many unknowns at the moment. Mr. Trump’s ignorance of the Middle East and the isolationist themes of his campaign raise multiple questions that we cannot yet answer about the direction his administration will take. Still, it is a good thing that Israel will almost surely not have a free hand to expand settlements without constraint; to grant it this right would damage its national interests and international standing far more than it would help. On the other hand, in other areas where we have some basis to judge the intentions of Mr. Trump, there is no reason to be encouraged by statements that have been made and actions that have been taken.
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Trump ran on a “Putin is my friend platform.” Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn, shares this sycophantic deference to Russia’s autocratic leader, and Flynn has even prostituted himself by working for a Russian TV network that parrots the Putin line. Trump has had nothing but praise for Russia’s presence in Syria, where Putin is supposedly battling ISIS but is actually, with Iran’s help, shoring up the Assad regime.
The problem with all of this, as Israeli commentators and military analysts have not hesitated to point out, is that Russia’s growing presence in Syria is a serious blow to Israel’s ability to act freely in the Syrian theater. Russia and Israel supposedly have an understanding that their forces will coordinate with each other, but there is no doubt who's the senior partner calling the shots.
The United States and Israel are allies; Russia and Israel are not. If the Russians choose to restrict actions by Israel’s air force to stop the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah through Syria, there will be no appeal. Syria is now Russia’s sphere of influence, and as Donald Trump has made abundantly clear, it will remain that way.
The Russians, by the way, are also likely to express support for Iran when the Trump administration is considering the future of the Iran deal. We do not know how emphatic Putin will be in defending Iranian interests. But again the question arises: Why exactly the enthusiasm on the Israeli right for an American president who is likely to flee from his responsibilities in the world and bow to Russian imperialism in Israel’s backyard?
Given the problems that Israel faces from Syria and Iran, the last thing it needs right now is a major conflict with either the Americans or the Europeans over settlement building. And why risk a confrontation with an unpredictable new president, who has little interest and no experience in the international realm? This may be why Avigdor Lieberman has apparently recognized what Bibi Netanyahu has refused to see: Now is actually a good time to put forward a reasonable plan to resolve the settlement question and to indicate Israel’s intentions in negotiations with the Palestinians. And Lieberman has done just that, calling for a return to the terms of the Bush-Sharon letters of 2004.
The Bush-Sharon letters called for a two-state solution and an end to settlement construction outside of the major settlements blocs. At the same time, they also called for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and suggested that the blocs could be incorporated into Israel as part of any final status agreement. As Lieberman noted, a reaffirmation of this correspondence could be negotiated in such a way that would give Israel freedom to expand settlements within agreed-upon borders of the blocs.
If the Bush-Sharon letters are adopted by Trump and Netanyahu, peace is hardly likely. In the current climate, it is hard to imagine the Palestinians embracing the 2004 formula. But it would remove a major source of tension between Israel and America, permit settlement building in those areas where the great majority of settlers live, recommit Israel to a two-state solution and to specific borders for such a solution, and put an end to the slow, tortuous, illegal, and immoral process of building settlements and “outposts” outside of the blocs. And it would probably win the enthusiastic support of a new, untried President, who would be delighted to remove, at least for a while, one problem from his plate.
The settlement movement, of course, would howl in pain and outrage, and swear revenge. “No limitation on settlement,” it would proclaim, “not now or ever.” But Lieberman, a credentialed member of the Israeli right, has finally understood that appeasing the settlers is a losing game, and not one that advances Israel’s values or interests. Using Lieberman as cover, and with an eye toward American political realities, Netanyahu should adopt the plan as his own.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie