In Interview to Haaretz, Tim Kaine Warns Trump: Israeli-Palestinian Peace Is About People, Not Real Estate

Former-VP hopeful explains how he got Trump's pick for Israel envoy to admit what a one-state solution actually means, and why, despite it all, he's optimistic.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation in Washington, D.C., U.S.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) seemed to be having a good time. On Thursday morning, mid-way through the first confirmation hearing for David Friedman, President Trump's nominee for ambassador to Israel, it was Kaine's turn to ask Friedman a question – and he presented the ambassadorial candidate with one that created a surprising headline.

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Kaine quoted President Trump's press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu, where the president said he could "live with" either a two-state solution or a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as long as that solution would be accepted by both sides.

"I think this is something that would generate a unanimous view up here, that the U.S. policy should be to support a resolution that both parties like, but if either or both parties don't accept it, then the U.S. should not support that policy. Is that fair?" Kaine asked Friedman. The nominee replied that it's been U.S. policy for decades to encourage direct negotiations, so that both sides could reach a solution they agreed upon.

Kaine then walked Friedman through a number of scenarios in which Israel would likely reject a two-state solution – for example, if it didn’t include Palestinian recognition of its right to exist, or a Palestinian commitment to end hostilities against Israel. He asked Friedman if the U.S. should then force Israel's hand to accept such a solution, and Friedman said that it clearly should not.

"So let me switch over now to the one-state formulation," Kaine said. "The Palestinians wouldn't like any one-state solution unless they had full and equal rights in such a state, correct?"

Friedman answered: "I don't think anyone would ever support a state where different classes of citizens had different rights."

"So, based on the president's formulation," Kaine continued, "a one-state solution would only be acceptable if Palestinians accepted it, and Palestinians aren't going to accept it if they're treated as second class citizens in that one-state formulation."

Friedman replied: "I agree."

Kaine, having achieved his goal of highlighting what a "one-state solution" would create on the ground in Israel, told the committee's chairman that he had no further questions. His grilling of Friedman became one of the hearing's highlights, as it caused Friedman – who in the past had expressed opposition to a Palestinian state and support for a one-state solution – to acknowledge that such a state would have one equal legal system for all of its citizens.

"If I hadn't heard what the president said at the press conference, I probably wouldn't have done that," Kaine told Haaretz in an interview on Thursday, shortly after the end of the hearing. "I found his phrasing very interesting. Everybody has been editorializing it ever since, but if you strip it down to just the words he used, what it basically means is that the U.S. could be happy with a solution if both parties liked it, and would be unhappy with a solution that either or both didn't like. So, I just said – let's play out the two options here, and see where it leads us."

Kaine has been a strong supporter of the two-state solution for years, and he told Haaretz that he still believes it should be the basis of U.S. policy in the region. "I've heard a lot of folks talking lately about annexation plans and one state," says Kaine, who visited Israel last year and has done so a number of times in the past. "We need to remember – that's not just real estate we're talking about here. This is about people. So it was important to hear David Friedman, in his own interpretation of Trump's language, acknowledge that no one would be happy with second class status [for Palestinians] and that the U.S. wouldn't ever support that."

Kaine's questioning of Friedman was not the first time he had created Israel-related headlines during a confirmation hearing in the Senate. When John Kerry was nominated by former President Barack Obama to be his secretary of state in 2013, Kaine was the first member of the Foreign Relations Committee to ask him during his confirmation hearing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kerry's reply – that "the window for a two-state solution could shut down, and that would be disastrous" – turned out to be the first clear sign of one of the hallmarks of his tenure as secretary of state – attempting solve the conflict through direct negotiations.

This year, Kaine once again brought up the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace during two important confirmation hearings he participated in. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, he asked General James Mattis, Trump's Secretary of Defense, if he thought the U.S. military could provide security assistance as part of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, in the same way that it did in Israel's peace treaty with Egypt. "If we can contribute, certainly, it's something we should look at," Mattis replied.

At the Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine asked Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, what was his position on a two-state solution, to which Tillerson replied that it was "the dream that everyone is in pursuit of," adding that while it remains to be seen if that dream can be reached, "I don’t think anyone would take a position that they don't hope for peace in that area."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Tim Kaine D-Va., right, greets Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, prior to the start of Tillerson's confirmation hearing before the committee.
Steve Helber/AP

You specifically brought up questions relating to Israel and the Palestinians in both of those hearings. Why?

Kaine: "I always tell people that I'm a Harry Truman Democrat. He was my favorite president, and among the most important things he did was recognizing Israel. I don't agree with everything the Israeli government does, but I care deeply about the country."

Kaine told Haaretz that in his meeting with David Friedman before Thursday's hearing, "I told him that I'm somewhere between 82 to 100 percent Irish, but I've been to Israel more than I've been to Ireland." Kaine, who is Catholic, added that he's been to the Western Wall in Jerusalem five times – much more than he's been to the Vatican.

"Jerusalem is my favorite city in the world outside of the United States. I have deep love for the country. But at the same time, I feel a profound anxiety about Israel's drift toward what I consider an untenable situation." His questions to Friedman at the hearing were meant to highlight where, eventually, that situation could lead to: A binational state that would be the end of the Zionist dream.

Kaine, however, also sees room for optimism. At the White House this week, President Trump talked about an opportunity for a regional peace deal that would involve not only the Palestinians, but also other Arab states in the region (Trump called it "a deal much larger than many people in this room would realize," to which Netanyahu only nodded, somewhat awkwardly.) Kaine thinks such a deal could be made possible – if Israel was willing to move towards a two-state solution.

Protesters at the David Friedman Confirmation Hearing

"There are many Arab nations that want a closer relationship with Israel. I've gone to Jordan, Egypt, and other countries, and they all say – help us get Israel-Palestine to a better chapter, because it would make things much easier for us when it comes to Israel. If not completely solved, than at least let's have that issue's temperature dramatically reduced. It's not the only issue in the region, of course – there are so many others things going on - but when Arab allies of the United States say they want to be friendlier with Israel, they tell us: this thing is a problem, we need to find a path forward."

Next week, Kaine will be a keynote speaker at the annual conference of J Street, the left-leaning Jewish organization that defines itself as "pro-Israel and pro-peace." Had the election results gone differently, Kaine's attendance would have been a major achievement for the group, since he was Hillary Clinton's nominee for vice president. Arriving instead as a senior senator, Kaine says that his focus at the conference will be on the different options facing Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S., in light of Trump's statement on the two-state solution.

"I talk to people from J Street and from AIPAC, and my rule is to always tell both groups exactly the same thing. I think that this time, the president's statement may end up being what I talk about. If you strip away from his quote all the editorializing, he basically said the U.S. should work on a policy that both sides can accept, so I'm going to ask - what exactly does that mean going forward? What does that policy look like?"

Asked what should be the role of Senate Democrats on this issue, and on the general notion that support for Israel in the Democratic Party is decreasing, Kaine said that "it's been good for Israel to have bipartisan support over the years. If we go back to Harry Truman which I've mentioned earlier, he overruled his own secretary of state, George Marshall, in his decision to recognize Israel – and he received strong backing on this issue from Republicans in Congress. That's what bipartisan support means for Israel. I think it's been getting a little bit more partisan, and that's not desirable. "

Have you had a chance to talk about this with Prime Minister Netanyahu?

"I haven't had a conversation with Bibi since last January, when I met him in Israel. It's something that troubles a lot of my colleagues, and we all remember some of the ways in which the prime minister treated President Obama that had created a challenge, to some degree [Kaine chose to skip Netanyahu's speech before Congress in March 2015.] I think that as Democrats, we ought to be steady in our support, come and visit and have dialogue with Israel, and remember that if we're at odds with this or that person or policy – it doesn’t mean we're at odds with the people of Israel or that we care less for the future of the country."

Kaine added that it was unhelpful when people who care for Israel, "get called anti-Semites or anti-Israel simply because they raise criticism on a specific issue."

Have you reached a conclusion on how you will vote on Friedman?

"I'm going to grapple with it some more."

Kaine said that if there was one good thing that came out of the hearing, however, it was the notion that even people like himself and Friedman, who clearly do not see eye-to-eye on many issues relating to Israel, could find common ground on certain issues.

"The last time I came to Israel, I decided that I was tired of going to see Bibi and [Palestinian president] Abbas, which I do every time, and to once again hear the same things. I asked my staff to add something different this time, and I ended up spending time with local NGOs and youth activists, in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, younger people – and they told me that for them, one-state or two-states was something the politicians would have to decide on. The more important things, from their point of view, were equality, dignity and civil rights. I was a civil rights attorney in Virginia for 17 years, so I was very struck by that.

"David Friedman and I probably have a lot of points of disagreement, but it was interesting to find common ground on that point, that U.S. policy should never accept a status-quo where people are confined to second-class status. I felt that was a good point of agreement to come out of the hearing we just had."