NEW YORK – Liberal American Jewish leaders responded with concern Thursday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump's meeting, calling the president's willingness to drop the two-state solution "terrifying" and even "bizarre".
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However, others like the Zionist Organization of America's Morton Klein, struck a different tone and found it cause for optimism.
Netanyahu said at the press conference, “For the first time in my lifetime and in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy but increasingly as an ally,” the prime minister said. “This change creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and reach peace.”
What he meant, claimed Klein, is “the possibility of having some sort of confederation of Jordan with the Palestinian Arabs who live in Judea and Samaria.”
“With other Arab states deeply worried about Iran, it’s a potential opportunity to have other Arab states support this type of federation,” Klein told Haaretz. “Especially when you heard President Trump say ‘we don’t have to be committed to a Palestinian state, we’re committed to peace.’ You never heard any other president say that.”
Trump said he is not wedded to a two state resolution and is happy to go with whatever the parties themselves prefer. “I’m looking at two states and one,” he said. “I am very happy with the one both parties like. I thought for a while that two states were the way to go. But honestly if Bibi and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy.”
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Reaction to the joint press conference came swift and strong from other American Jewish organizational leaders, and far less positive than the ZOA’s Klein.
“I’m not sure Trump understands the implications” of a one state solution, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “It is a very dangerous suggestion.”
Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir called the press conference “terrifying” and “a squandered opportunity” to “signal to Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and the world a clear commitment to peace.”
It was a chance to “chart a constructive way forward for U.S.-Israel relations and for Israel’s future, for its security and its wellbeing as a democracy and a Jewish state,” Nir said. Instead, “the two leaders are not only depriving Israel of the very possibility of reaching peace but also undermining Israel's own future as a democracy and a Jewish state” when they discuss a one-state possibility. He added, “they are delivering a huge victory to extremists on both sides.”
The Reform Movement’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs said he views Trump’s statements as “an abdication of the longtime, bipartisan support for a two-state solution.” The one state possibility discussed “is potentially devastating to the prospects for peace and Israel’s Jewish, democratic future. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s endorsement of such a policy change is no less ill-advised,” wrote Jacobs in a statement from the Union for Reform Judaism, which he heads.
Still, Trump asked Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlements. The URJ wrote, “we welcome that statement, and note that it shows just how broad the consensus against new settlement in the West Bank is.”
What about anti-Semitism?
When an Israeli reporter asked Trump directly about his administration’s role in the spike in anti-Semitic incidents since his presidential campaign, the president evaded a direct answer, instead meandering through discussion of his margin of victory in the electoral college vote, pointing out that his daughter and her husband and children are Jewish, and saying that the U.S. will “see a lot of love” over the next four or eight years.
“His response was baffling,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told Haaretz. The issue “is not electoral votes. It’s about the wave of hate crimes since the election and the spike in anti-Semitism across the country,” he said. “President Trump seemed uninformed about this issue and missed an opportunity to decry the rhetoric of hate that seems to be surging online and in the real world. Intentional or not, this emboldens anti-Semites.”
T’ruah’s Jacobs called his response “so bizarre.”
“Over and over he has empowered white supremacists and he did the same thing today,” she said. “He’s never said straight up one word that anti-Semitism is not acceptable. Even when he was straight out asked. How hard would it have been for him to say ‘I’m really disturbed about the uptick of anti-Semitism and any of my supporters should cease any anti-Semitic behavior,’" asked Jacobs.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn in Congress, noted that Breitbart News – which he called “the flagship publication of the alt-right” – was given a front row seat at the press conference. That “should be a terrifying signal of the associations being made by this Administration and questions must be asked of the policies and directions coming from this White House. Mr. Trump’s silence earlier today in the face of these questions shows a sickening disregard for the safety and rights of not just Jews, but all minority groups across America.”
ZOA’s Klein interpreted Trump’s response far more benignly.
It was “a newly formed politician’s way of avoiding a question he didn’t want to answer. That’s my speculation but people have told me that they are concerned about it,” said Klein, referring to anti-Semitism. “I would assume that they’re talking behind the scenes about what can be done about this, and assume he didn’t feel it appropriate to talk about actions they’re thinking of taking.”
Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat who represents areas just north of New York City that include Hasidic municipalities like New Square, said “a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is the only means to ensure Israel’s long-term security and enable Palestinian aspirations for their own state.
Lowey, who is Jewish, wrote in a statement, “that is why presidents from both parties, the vast majorities of the House and Senate, and the American people have consistently supported this objective, and why President Trump must as well.”
Asked if she believes the regional paradigm briefly presented at the press conference could lead to peace, Jacobs said, “I don’t see any way that this team will attain peace. Neither of them wants it. Netanyahu clearly wants a continuation of the status quo forever, and we don’t now to what extent Trump understands the issues involved. He says on the fly that he is open to one or two states, but it’s not clear that he understands the implications of either.”
What’s more, added Jacobs, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who he has said will steer the Israel-Palestine peace process, “no matter how many years Jared spent at Jewish summer camp, there’s no evidence that he has knowledge about how to broker a deal.”