By Protecting Settlements, Congress Joins the Ranks of Israel’s Delegitimizers

American politicians and Jewish leaders claim to back the two-state solution but enable an Israeli government whose policies are killing it.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) join hands as they take the stage to address the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, March 1, 2015.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) join hands as they take the stage to address the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, March 1, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I’m sorry to pick on Maryland Senator Ben Cardin. But all accounts he’s a thoughtful, decent man. But no one looks good when defending the indefensible.

Here’s Cardin’s defense of the amendment he’s pushing to require the United States to lobby European governments against boycotting either Israel or Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (The amendment echoes a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision allowing Israelis, inside or outside the Green Line, to sue their boycotters for damages.) “This amendment intends to counter efforts aimed at delegitimizing the state of Israel,” Cardin declared. “Issues, including borders and settlements, need to be resolved in direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Let’s start at the end. Resolving “borders and settlements” via “direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians” is a nice principle. But it’s a principle blatantly violated by Israel’s policy of subsidizing West Bank settlements and thus creating facts on the ground. If Cardin really wants to ensure that borders and settlements are “resolved” via “direct negotiations” rather than unilateral actions by either side, he’ll demand a settlement freeze. I’m not holding my breath.

In fact, “direct negotiations” can succeed only if both sides feel pressure to make them succeed. Right now, Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t. Even if you believe, despite his recent statements to the contrary, that Bibi personally supports a two-state solution, he’s made no effort to get his party or his government to endorse that view. He’s rejected the principle that the 1967 lines, with land swaps, would constitute the border between Israel and a Palestinian state even though that principle has undergirded every serious two-state negotiation in the past. And during the peace talks brokered last year by John Kerry, Barak Ravid reported that Bibi “flatly refused to present a map [of a Palestinian state] or even to discuss the subject theoretically.”

Given that Israel’s new cabinet is dominated by people even more hostile to a Palestinian state than their predecessors, the only way to resolve anything via “direct negotiations” is to make Netanyahu pay a price for entrenching the status quo. I oppose boycotts against all of Israel because they send the message that the Jewish state is illegitimate within any borders. But boycotting companies in the West Bank, or companies that perpetuate Israel’s military control there, is different. Without questioning Israel’s existence, such boycotts make it more costly for Netanyahu to spurn a two-state deal – which offers at least the faint hope that he might negotiate more seriously toward one.

Then there’s the first half of Cardin’s quote: “This amendment intends to counter efforts aimed at delegitimizing the state of Israel.” But boycotting settlements doesn’t “delegitimize” Israel. It “delegitimizes” settlements, which themselves “delegitimize” Israel. Israeli legitimacy, after all, rests on Israeli democracy. Israel’s defenders call it the “only democracy in the Middle East.” They insist there is no contradiction between a country that protects and represents the Jewish people and one that offers basic rights for all people.

Israel’s “delegitimizers” say the opposite: that Zionism and democracy are incompatible. Inside the Green Line, where non-Jews enjoy citizenship, the right to vote and live under a common legal system, Israel’s defenders have a good case. But by occupying and settling the West Bank, Israel plays right into its enemies’ hands. After all, what could be more convenient for people arguing that Zionism and democracy are incompatible than Israeli control of a territory where Palestinians live under a separate legal system than their Jewish neighbors and lack free movement, citizenship and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives?

It’s precisely because Israeli control of the West Bank threatens Israeli democracy that famed Israeli novelists like David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua publicly boycott the settlement of Ariel. And why the head of Israel’s prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science announced in 2012 that he would boycott the university there. One can debate the efficacy of these boycotts, but to call their proponents “delegitimizers” is absurd. To the contrary, men like Grossman, Oz and Yehoshua are refusing to legitimize the settlements precisely in order to legitimize Israel itself.

The most powerful delegitimizers in Washington are those American politicians and Jewish leaders who, while claiming to back the two-state solution, enable an Israeli government whose policies are killing it. “We’ve got to give credit to Netanyahu,” Omar Barghouti, a key leader of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, said at Columbia University in December. “Without him we could not have reached this far, at this time. It could have taken much, much, much, much longer, but with the help of the Israeli government, our biggest closet supporters in the world, we’re going much faster.”

The next time Barghouti publicly celebrates the BDS movement’s success, perhaps he’ll give Cardin a shout-out too.

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