Opinion

Trump Ally Lindsey Graham: America's Most Unlikely Campaigner Against Israeli Annexation

Now that Trump sidekick and fiercely loyal Netanyahu ally Senator Lindsey Graham has joined the anti-annexation, pro-two state 'resistance', will Bibi think again?

Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC., questions Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Pablo Martinez Monsivais,AP

American political leaders are rising up against the annexationist fantasies of Benjamin Netanyahu and the settler factions on the Israeli right. A message is being sent to Israel: Two states for two peoples has been, and remains, U.S. policy. And Israel changes that policy at her peril. 

It is hard to overstate how important a moment this is in the relations between Israel and the Jewish state. 

Because we are now seeing that those who are protesting annexationist moves are not only the left-liberals of the Democratic party. Also joining in are mainstream Democrats. And Democratic presidential candidates of all political hues. And Republicans leaders, including very conservative Republicans. And the Trump administration itself. 

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And virtually all of those who are speaking up are very good friends of the State of Israel.  

The settlers and their supporters, it is now clear, got it all wrong.

They were convinced that Donald Trump was going to give them a free ride. Backed by the U.S. president, Israel would be able to do as she wished, including, as Bibi made clear during Israel’s last election campaign, annexing Israel’s "patrimony" in Judea and Samaria. And this meant not only the settlements in the major blocs, but the "isolated" ones located throughout the West Bank.

Might there be some pushback, the annexationists wondered? Perhaps. But they were not overly concerned. With Trump calling the shots, the Evangelicals in Israel’s corner, an American election approaching, the money of Sheldon Adelson in play, and the focus of U.S. politics clearly on domestic concerns, what difference would it really make? 

The tough-talking Trump, so the assumption went, would make a half-hearted effort to pull off "the deal of the century," but after its collapse would give his blessing, even if reluctantly, to the annexation of settlements - or, as Bibi called it, the "extension of Israeli sovereignty" to parts of Judea and Samaria. 

A nice fantasy, if you are a fervently rightwing Likudnik, or a supporter of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, or a messianic Jewish extremist living in Hebron, or a settlement enthusiast living in Brooklyn. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman unveil a sign for a new community named after U.S. President Donald Trump, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights June 16, 2019
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

And this fantasy seemed to generate some actual support when David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, proclaimed in an interview that Israel "has the right to retain" some of the West Bank. 

It is true that Netanyahu and members of his diplomatic team engaged in a bit of semantic obfuscation. Bibi avoided the term "annexation" because the International Criminal Court forbids the annexation of occupied territory; nonetheless, "extending sovereignty" means exactly the same thing. 

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer also avoids speaking of "annexation"; answering a question at the American Jewish Committee conference on how Israel could both grant sovereignty to a demilitarized Palestinian state and retain security control over that state, he responded that "you have to have a new conception of sovereignty." 

Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer speaks at an IAC conference, June 24, 2018
PERRY BINDELGLASS

(And what would that be exactly? Colonialism? Quasi-apartheid?)  

But the euphemisms fooled no one, and indeed they were not intended to. Appealing to his right-wing base, Netanyahu, in unequivocal language, had promised unilateral annexation of settlements large and small in all parts of the West Bank.     

It is unclear whether Bibi will repeat this promise in the second election campaign. And whether he actually meant what he said is another question, and a much debated one.

But American politicians cannot be expected to parse the politics of Israel and interpret the psychology of Israel’s Prime Minister. Instead, they simply listened to what Bibi said, and then did the logical thing, which was to take him at his word. 

And then they responded. And in doing so, they put to bed once and for all the question of where mainstream American political thinking is on the one-state vs. two-state question.

First came the letter of four Jewish members of Congress, all strong supporters of Israel, warning Netanyahu not to annex part of the West Bank. 

Then came two congressional resolutions: one introduced by eight Democratic senators, and another introduced by members of Congress Lowenthal, Bass, and Connolly and already co-sponsored by 122 members of the House Democratic caucus.

Both affirmed support for Israel and a two-state solution, noting that negotiating a settlement leading to two states had been the policy of the U.S. government since the Clinton administration.

Democratic presidential candidate and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg speaks at the 2019 Blue Commonwealth Gala fundraiser June 15, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia
AFP

Then came a speech by presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, generally viewed as a centrist and an internationalist, and as one of the five leading Democratic candidates. "Mayor Pete" expressed strong support for Israel while also asserting that if Bibi annexes West Bank settlements, a President Buttigieg would ensure that American taxpayers will not foot the bill

Then came a statement by a State Department official, noting that no plan of settlement annexation by Israel is under consideration and that the U.S. administration’s position on settlements,opposing unilateral Israeli moves to alter the status of settlements,has not changed.

Then came an announcement by Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Chris Van-Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, of their intention to sponsor a different, bipartisan resolution, also calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Senator Graham, it should be noted, is one of Israel’s fiercest and most loyal supporters, a dependable ally on virtually every issue advocated by the Netanyahu government. But when pressured by Israeli diplomats to remove the "two-state" formula from his resolution, he refused. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman visit the border between Israel and Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. March 11, 2019
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

"I can’t envision a one-state solution," he said in an interview. "It won’t work. I mean, you’d have to disenfranchise the Palestinians, (and) that won’t work. If you let them vote, as one state, they’ll overwhelm the Israelis. That won’t work. So if you want to have a democratic, secure Jewish state, I think you have to have two states…"

Well said, Senator Graham.

The point is that a consensus has developed among America’s political class about recent developments in Israel. That class is strongly pro-Israel. For 70 years it has been committed to a Jewish and democratic state. It stands with Israel, cares about Israel, and supports Israel with aid and weapons. 

But that political class is now confused and appalled by the messianic delusions of Israel’s extremist settlers, who have replaced the language of democracy and enlightenment with the language of occupation and annexation.

And that class is puzzled and distressed by the deeply troubling statements of Israel’s prime minister, and by what annexation would do to the fragile and volatile situation on the ground in the West Bank.   

And so, incredibly, it has now become necessary for Israel-loving U.S. lawmakers to remind Israel’s leaders that for the United States of America, its primary patron, Israel will always be about a Jewish state committed to freedom and democratic norms. As Senator Graham put it, nothing else will work. 

Bibi, are you listening? 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie