Opinion

Sign Up for Trump's Peace Plan, Sign Away Israel's Special Status in America

By giving Israel a green light to do whatever it wants, the Trump plan threatens its very future as a democracy. That will change how Democrats view Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship – possibly profoundly

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speak to the press on the West Wing Colonnade prior to meetings at the White House in Washington, DC, January 27, 2020
AFP

Israelis from across the political spectrum have greeted the Trump administration’s new Middle East peace plan warmly. And why not? Drafted with little input from the Palestinians, the plan is basically a codification of longstanding Israeli positions on all the key issues that have long divided the two sides. 

In Trump’s "vision," Israel is allowed to annex most of the territory it currently holds on the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and settlements widely considered illegal; keeps all of Jerusalem, allowing for a Palestinian capital only in the city’s suburbs; remains fully in charge of security, reserving even the right to re-occupy areas where the Palestinians might be given temporary control; and does not even have to agree to a nominal Palestinian "state" unless Palestinians find a way to demilitarize Gaza and oust the Hamas terrorists who control it. 

In this sense, the document Donald Trump released last Tuesday is not so much a peace plan as a roadmap for implementing Israeli victory in the two sides’ longstanding conflict. By rejecting the plan – as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas predictably did within hours of its release – the Palestinians give Israel the pretext to advance its unilateral plans to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, while blaming the absence of a Palestinian partner. 

Palestinian protesters burn pictures of US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration against his peace plan. West Bank city of Ramallah, Jan 28, 2020
AFP

Israeli happiness with the plan is thus understandable, but it may well prove misplaced. 

In the short-term, the Trump vision allows Israel to avoid painful compromises on difficult issues like settlement withdrawals or giving the Palestinians a true capital in East Jerusalem. But in the longer run – by denying Palestinians a genuinely sovereign state and subjecting them to eternal Israeli rule, it threatens Israel’s very future as a democracy. And that, in turn, will make it increasingly difficult for many Americans – especially Democrats – to support it as strongly as in the past.

By giving Israel a green light to do whatever it wants, Trump risks permanently damaging the bipartisan bond with the United States and undermining the U.S.-Israel special relationship.   

Most Democrats, of course, remain strongly committed to Israel, for reasons of American interests and values. But recent Israeli policies, with Trump’s blessing, have been making that commitment harder and harder to sustain. If current trends continue, and Israel implements the Trump plan – over the heads of the Palestinians and notwithstanding broad international opposition – bipartisan support for Israel could become a thing of the past.    

That process is already well underway and accelerating quickly.

Just a few years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine candidates running for president being even mildly critical of an Israeli prime minister or his policies except for possibly on the far left.

Now, the leading Democratic candidates have all – in some cases harshly – criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his corrupt practices, support for settlements, opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, and support for annexation. There is now also a major debate taking place within the party – and among the presidential candidates – about the possibility of conditioning U.S. security assistance to Israel – a debate that would have been unheard of a few years ago.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen Elizabeth Warren, former VP Joe Biden and Sen Bernie Sanders participate in the fifth Democratic primary debate in Atlanta, Nov 20, 2019
AFP

The same thing is happening in Congress – a traditional bastion of nearly unconditional support for Israel. In early 2019, for example, the U.S. Senate voted on legislation that would allow state and local governments to adopt measures that penalize individuals or entities who support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel by not allowing them to have state contracts. The bill passed, but with half of Democrats opposing it on the grounds that it violated free speech. Five years ago this bill would likely have passed with 99 votes instead of 77. 

Even some of Israel’s most stalwart Democratic supporters, including Representatives Elliott Engel, Nita Lowey, Ted Deutch, and Brad Schneider, issued a joint statement last April warning Israel not to annex parts of the West Bank and other leading Democrats have in recent days again expressed concern in the wake of Trump’s plan.

These changes have been driven by Israel’s unilateral policies and the desire among Democrats to distance themselves from Trump, but also by the changing demographic makeup of the Democratic Party.

The party is increasingly made up of younger voters and minorities, who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of civil rights and do not share traditional perspectives on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Indeed, recent polling shows that more than a quarter of Democrats today support the BDS movement, while 52 percent either support it or do not oppose it. Polls also show plummeting support for Israel among women, millennials and liberals, who increasingly support sanctions to penalize Israel over settlement expansion, human rights abuses, or the use of military force in Gaza. 

Consider also that 78 percent of American Democrats favor Israel’s democracy more than its Jewishness and support Arab and Jewish equality - even if that means Israel would no longer be a politically Jewish state, while only 12 percent favor Israel’s Jewishness even if that means Palestinians will not have citizenship and full rights. (Even for Republicans, 48 percent favor Israel’s democracy and 42 percent its Jewishness). 

New Yorkers gathered in Union Square on April 6, 2018 to show solidarity with Gaza's Great March of Return
Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Ligh

In this context, now imagine a future where Israel goes ahead with unilateral annexation of Israeli settlements and the Jordan River Valley, and more or less kills off the possibility of a genuinely sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state.

In that scenario, Americans will be left with a choice. They can support a system where Palestinians who make up more than half the population are not granted citizenship, live under a perpetual military occupation, and are increasingly part of an apartheid-like system. Or they can stand for democracy, international law, and human rights and argue for one binational state where Palestinians are able to vote and be treated equally to Jews.

In such a scenario, Republicans will likely stick with Israel because of their shared stances on issues such as counterterrorism and Iran, and due to strong support from evangelicals.

But the nature of Democrats’ view of Israel and the nature of the relationship will change – possibly profoundly. Most Democrats will not walk away from Israel altogether. But in ten or twenty years – or possibly sooner – Israel could become just be another American partner like so many others around the world, with whom we share some common economic and security interests. But it will no longer be one of a select group of countries in the top tier of American partners and allies with whom we also share a deep bond over common values.

U.S. policy toward Israel could shift radically back and forth depending on which party runs the White House or Congress.  The relationship would no longer be "special," which would not only be a shame - but a threat to Israel itself. 

Ilan Goldenberg is the Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a Policy Advisor to the Israel Policy Forum. He previously served as part of the U.S. team during the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. He is an informal advisor on foreign policy and national security to the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Twitter: @ilangoldenberg

Philip Gordon is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. He served as Assistant Secretary of State and White House Coordinator for the Middle East under President Barack Obama and is the author of the forthcoming book, "Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East"