NEW YORK (JTA) — The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a hotly debated issue — but not in the Florida Legislature.
Both houses of the state’s Legislature voted unanimously in February to stake out a bold position on the issue — but it’s not entirely clear what, exactly, Florida lawmakers were trying to say.
The resolution supports Israel’s “God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon the entirety of its own lands” and says that the Jewish state is not “an occupier of the lands of others.” It concludes by saying that “peace can be afforded the region only through a whole and united Israel governed under one law for all people.”
The activists behind the measure say their goal was to affirm Israel’s right to determine what happens with the territories it captured in 1967 and the right of Israeli settlers to live anywhere in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. But critics counter that the plain reading of the resolution ends up endorsing a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — with Palestinians in the West Bank being granted equal citizenship.
Such a prescription not only contradicts the stated policies of both the U.S. government and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it represents what leaders in both countries have described as an existential threat to Israel’s existence as a Jewish democratic state.
Supporters of the measure, however, denied that this was their intent.
“One law for all people — and by ‘all people’ we mean Israeli citizens,” said Joseph Sabag, executive director of the Florida chapter of the Zionism Organization of America, who helped organize lobbying efforts in Tallahassee to get the measure adopted.
Asked about suggestions that the text of Florida’s resolution seems to call for a one-state solution, one lawmaker said the reading did not occur to him.
“I would have to say, I did not focus on that,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, a Jewish Democrat from Coral Gables, who was one of more than 30 co-sponsors of the resolution in the Florida House of Representatives. “If it’s anything other than support for the State of Israel, then I would say shame on us for signing on.”
The Florida resolution is largely based on legislation that was approved unanimously by the South Carolina state House of Representatives last June.
At a January meeting in New Orleans, the Republican National Committee embraced a resolution identical to the one passed by the South Carolina lawmakers when it was proposed by a committee member from the state. An RNC spokesperson later stressed that the resolution does not bind the party since it is not part of its platform.
The RNC’s action, however, raised a few left-wing eyebrows.
“There is no interpretation possible other than that the RNC is also advocating complete Israeli annexation of the West Bank, including granting citizenship to the Palestinians living there,” wrote Mitchell Plitnick, a dovish blogger who first reported on the RNC’s action.
J Street tweeted that the RNC action “confirms the decades long bipartisan consensus on a two-state solution is shattered.”
But the author of the original South Carolina resolution said he was not calling for a one-state solution.
“We stand with Israel in its own self-determination over those lands,” said state Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Republican. “I think that really is the bottom line of what the resolution stands for.”
Clemmons, whose resolution was a model not only for Florida but other states now considering similar measures, told JTA that he was inspired to draft the measure following President Obama’s speech last May in which he said that future borders between Israel and a Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 lines with agreed-upon adjustments.
“I remember looking at my wife at the time and saying, ‘I just don’t know anybody that agrees with that position,’” Clemmons said. “We are Christians. We believe the Abrahamic covenant to mean what it says, that the land of Israel is an inheritance to the children of Israel, the Jews, for eternity. We take that quite literally.”
Clemmons, a real estate attorney from Myrtle Beach, says he regards the biblical claim to Israel as the “oldest recorded deed in history” and set out to draft a resolution that reflects this view.
The South Carolina resolution cites Leviticus in asserting a bibilical Jewish ownership of the land and asserts that “God has never rescinded his grant of said lands.”
The reference to “one law,” Clemmons said, was intended to refer narrowly to Jewish building rights, which he believes should be no different whether the Jew in question lives in Tel Aviv or in the West Bank.
“When it came up for debate, there was no debate,” Clemmons said. “It was voted on unanimously without objection.”
Sabag said the ZOA took the South Carolina resolution’s language and “enhanced it” before sending it along to Florida legislators and the leaderships of both the Republican and Democratic national committees.
The ZOA’s changes stripped out the reference to Leviticus and to God not having rescinded his promise and inserted language that explicitly mentions the 650,000 Jews who live in “Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem” and who “reside there legitimately.”
In its statement hailing the Florida Legislature’s passage of the resolution, the ZOA explained, “The mention of ‘one law for all people’ is a specific call for the Jews of Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem to be permitted the same rights of land use and development as Jews living elsewhere in Israel.”
The resolution, however, makes no mention of land use or development issues.
Morton Klein, the ZOA’s national president, acknowledged that given the way some have interpreted the “governed under one law for all people” line as calling for granting citizenship to West Bank Palestinians, it “was a poorly worded phrase.”
“It’s not so clear what it means,” Klein said. “I remember struggling with that phrase. It was not written very clearly.”
According to Klein, there is movement to have similar measures adopted in Pennsylvania and Ohio — both states that, like Florida, are sure to be crucial battlegrounds in the November presidential election. Sabag said the resolutions “will be addressed and clarified” as they are taken up elsewhere.
“It’s not in its final version,” Sabag said.
The resolution is one of several items taken up by the Florida Legislature in recent weeks that has commanded Jewish attention. A bill that intended to combat the application of Islamic law was opposed by many in the Jewish community out of fear that religious divorces decided by a rabbinical court also might be invalidated. The bill failed to come to a vote before the legislative session ended last Friday.
Also, a bill adopted March 1 allows students to deliver “inspirational messages” in schools, which critics decried as opening the door to school prayer. The Anti-Defamation League urged Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill, saying the law is “unnecessary, divisive, and unconstitutional,” and would invite costly litigation.