Keeping Them Down: The U.S. Jewish Establishment's Selective Principles on Palestine

They prefer to see the Palestinians on their knees, negotiating from a position of abject weakness.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presides over a meeting with Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah August 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart

According to press reports, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will this week demand that Israel set a date for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If not, he’ll ask the International Criminal Court to make Palestine a member, which could allow it to sue Israel for war crimes.

Any minute now, American Jewish groups will express their outrage. How do I know? Because that’s how they’ve reacted when Abbas has tried similar moves in the past. In 2011, he tried, but failed, to get the Security Council to endorse Palestinian membership at the UN. In 2012, at his urging, the UN General Assembly declared Palestine a non-member observer state. This April, Palestine joined 15 different UN bodies.

Each time, establishment American Jewish groups denounced Abbas’ initiatives as an assault against peace.

Why? Because they are “unilateral.” AIPAC is on record as opposing “unilateral steps that undermine the peace process.” According to the pro-Israel group, StandWithUs, “A durable peace can emerge only through direct negotiations, not unilateral declarations.” 

Let’s pause for a moment on the word American Jewish groups find so offensive: “Unilateral.” Google defines it as an action that occurs “without the agreement of another or others.” But the only reason Palestine became a non-member observer state at the UN is because 138 other countries voted to make it one. Last month, Netanyahu said Israel would retain indefinite security control over the West Bank. AIPAC and StandWithUs didn’t condemn those “unilateral declarations.” And last week, Israel went beyond declarations. It seized almost 1,000 acres of West Bank land—land whose crops currently sustain several Palestinian villages—so it could build settlements. I doubt even Palau and Nauru back that move. And yet the anti-unilateralists at AIPAC and StandWithUs stayed silent. 

What do American Jewish groups want Abbas to do instead of acting “unilaterally?” Talk to Israel face to face. “The only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is through direct negotiations,” declares an AIPAC briefing book. 

Unfortunately, Abbas “is taking unilateral steps that only serve to undermine U.S.- backed peace efforts.” But the American Jewish establishment applies this principle selectively too. When it comes to Hamas, for instance, American Jewish groups oppose direct negotiations, preferring that Israel and the United States talk with Hamas indirectly, through intermediaries like Egypt.

In any case, Abbas doesn’t oppose direct negotiations. What he opposes are direct negotiations that don’t lead to a Palestinian state. He has, after all, spent the better part of this year directly negotiating with an Israeli prime minister who has refused to publicly accept the principle of a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines, refused—even privately—to discuss the territorial dimensions of such a state, and declared that “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”  

As a result, Abbas is understandably worried that Netanyahu will use endless negotiations as a shield against international pressure and a cloak under which Israel can expropriate more and more of the territory on which Abbas wants to build his state. As President Obama himself noted earlier this year, “We have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” 

If Abbas’s primary goal were to sue Israel for war crimes, he’d join the ICC now. He’s not doing that. He’s threatening to join, and demanding a timetable for statehood, in order to force Netanyahu to talk seriously. If Netanyahu doesn’t want Israel sued at the ICC—something I don’t welcome either—Abbas has given him a clear alternative: Emulate your predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and negotiate seriously within the parameters laid out by Bill Clinton in December 2000. (Olmert, it’s worth noting, has said that, “If I had remained prime minister for another four to six months, I believe it would have been possible to reach an agreement” with Abbas).

What Abbas wants, above all, is leverage. He’s not trying to get it the way Hamas is: By launching rockets. And he’s not trying to get it the way the BDS movement is: By boycotting all of Israel and thus implying it is illegitimate within any borders. He’s seeking leverage nonviolently and in support of the two state solution. In other words, he’s pursuing exactly the means and the ends that, in other contexts, American Jewish groups demand.

So why will his efforts meet a chorus of mainstream American Jewish opposition? Because leverage is exactly what the American Jewish establishment doesn’t want Palestinians to have. Better for them to remain permanently on their knees, negotiating from a position of abject weakness and dependent on whatever tender mercies Israel and the United States decide to show them.

How dare Abbas try to seize the initiative and bend history his people’s way? He’s acting almost like a Zionist. 

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