Three years ago, when Barack Obama left the White House, it was hard to imagine Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice agreeing on the issue of Israeli settlements. The leaders represented the two very different approaches within the Democratic Party on matters related to Israel, and particularly on this issue.
Schumer, one of the most hawkish supporters of Israel in the Democratic Party, is a close ally of AIPAC and throughout his political career has rarely criticized the Israeli government. Rice has been a strong critic of the Netanyahu government and led a combative approach against settlements during her time in office.
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In the last month of Obama's presidency, when the administration decided not to veto a UN Security Council resolution against settlements, Rice was one of the primary forces within the administration pushing for such action. Meanwhile, Schumer was one of the most vocal detractors in the Democratic Party. He denounced the administration's decision and made efforts to distance himself from it.
Despite all this, on Tuesday Schumer and Rice both spoke at a virtual event organized by the Israel Policy Forum and, for once, found a position they could agree on. They were united by the prospect of unilateral Israeli annexation of settlements in the West Bank and the damage that such a move could inflict on Israel's security, diplomatic ties with neighboring Arab countries, and its standing in the United States, particularly among Democratic voters.
Schumer sent a video message to the event, in which he emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. He expressed strong support for expanding and widening the ties between the two countries, but also clearly stated his opposition to unilateral annexation. Schumer urged Israel and the Palestinians to work toward a two-state solution; a goal that annexation directly contradicts.
“Our ardent support for Israel doesn’t mean we should lose sight of this goal,” Schumer said. He added that Congress has had a “long standing bipartisan position” of rejecting “unilateral steps by both sides,” including annexation. Schumer said that it was “urgent” to show America’s commitment to a two-state solution, particularly in light of the growing debate over annexation. He concluded by saying that despite the challenges on the road to a diplomatic solution to the conflict, "Israel is worth it."
Rice was interviewed for the event by Alan Solow, former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. She said that she continues to support a two-state solution, as she did during her time in office, because it is “the only way to keep Israel Jewish and democratic.” Rice recalled visiting Israel at the age of 14 with her father, and spoke about the importance of “shared values” in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
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Rice warned that annexation would lead to a situation in which “fundamentally, Israel will either not be able to sustain itself as a Jewish state, or it won’t be able to sustain itself as a democracy. In my estimation, either outcome is one we have to avoid at all costs. When it comes to annexation, it all but makes the objective of a two-state outcome impossible. It would also alienate Israel from its neighbors, particularly Jordan.”
The fact that both Rice and Schumer participated in the virtual event raising the alarm over annexation, shows the degree to which the Democratic Party is united in its opposition to potential annexation moves. This includes politicians from the more left-wing, progressive section of the party, most notably Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – both of whom signed a public letter against annexation earlier this month.
Other speakers at the IPF event also highlighted the dangers of annexation. Retired Four Star General John Allen, who worked on a detailed security plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement under the Obama administration, warned of the potential damage to Israel’s successful security cooperation with Jordan.
“They’ve been a great security partner,” Allen said of the Jordanians. “Is that cooperation going to continue?” He warned that annexation could lead to a decrease in Israeli-Jordanian cooperation that would hurt Israel's security. Allen added that annexation could shift the focus in the Middle East away from the fight against Iran.
Michelle Flournoy, a former senior official at the Pentagon and potential Secretary of Defense in a future Democratic administration, said that Americans should “take the warnings” of the Arab world about annexation “very seriously.” She explained that “Arab leaders care about their street, annexation could hurt the ties that some Arab countries have developed with Israel. This will also be bad for American interests in the region.”
Dan Shapiro, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama, called the annexation map presented by the Trump administration “bizarre,” saying it would force Israel to shift military forces away from its northern and southern borders, in order to defend isolated settlements that would be annexed to Israel yet remain surrounded by Palestinian territories.
So far, more than 170 Democrats in the House of Representatives, and more than 30 Democrats in the Senate, have expressed their opposition to annexation. While there continue to be differences of opinion within the party on issues related to Israel – for example, Sanders and other progressives are in favor or reducing military aid to Israel, while former Vice President Joe Biden and other moderates reject this idea – the party is united in opposing annexation.
On the Republican side, 116 members of the House signed a public letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu expressing support for any Israeli annexation decision. The letter was promoted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose most important donor, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is a long-time supporter of settlements. Adelson has said in the past that he’s not concerned about Israel losing its democratic character, because nowhere in the Bible does it say that Israel should be a democracy.