Jewish groups fret as Republicans retreat from two-state solution

From left to right: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., March 3, 2015. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)


WASHINGTON (JTA) — In recent months, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have each emphasized what in recent years hardly needed emphasizing: mainstream Jewish support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The reiterations of support signify a concern growing among Jewish organizations about deepening partisan differences on what has been since 2002 a rare area of broad political consensus in Israel and the United States.

It also shows how centrist Jewish groups are struggling to grapple with an incoming president, Donald Trump, ready to shatter orthodoxies that once united Democrats and Republicans on issues like the role of America abroad and how to promote tolerance at home.

The AJC was the latest organization to plead for preserving two-states as a favored outcome in a lengthy statement on Friday by its CEO, David Harris.

“We long for the day when the Palestinians will extend an outstretched hand of peace, and we urge Israel and the new U.S. Administration not to lose sight of such a possibility — and the two-state agreement that would result,” Harris said.

Undergirding Harris’ plea is an incoming administration whose top Jewish advisers have said that the two-state solution is not a necessary component of its diplomacy, and an Israeli government which has drifted further than ever from a two-state outcome, with moves underfoot by Cabinet members to appropriate more West Bank land. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the moves, but he is increasingly isolated within his political camp in maintaining support for two states.

Just before their convention in July, Republicans removed advocacy for two states from the party platform. Backers of the move said they did not count out a Palestinian state as an outcome, but they preferred to defer to Israel on the matter.

Both parties have embraced two states since 2002, when Republican President George W. Bush, picking up on cues from his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, said it was the preferred outcome.

Anticipating two states is embedded in a key strategy for mainstream pro-Israel groups: Maintaining areas of bipartisan agreement on Israel as a means of building broad political support for the pro-Israel agenda.

A concern that the parties are drifting apart on Israel is what informed the ADL’s statement after the Republican platform change.

“We are disappointed that the platform draft departs from longstanding support of a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict – and the shared vision of successive American presidents and prime ministers of Israel, including the current leadership in both countries, who believed it was the only viable way to secure Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state,” the ADL said at the time.

For AIPAC, as is its wont, the emphasis on two states has been delivered in a relatively soft voice – but is still unmistakable.

letter from 88 senators on Sept. 20 urging President Barack Obama to stop the United Nations from taking unilateral steps on the peace process had as its third sentence: “The only way to resolve the conflicts between the two is through direct negotiations that lead to a sustainable two-state solution with a future state of Palestine living in peace and security with Israel.”

The language was drafted by AIPAC, and insiders at the lobby said it was designed in part to maintain strong relationships with Democrats, strained in 2015 by profound differences over the Iran nuclear deal reached that year.

It was notable that four GOP flagbearers of pro-Israel orthodoxy absented themselves from signing the letter because of the mention high up of two states and the use – rare if not unprecedented in an AIPAC-drafted letter – of the word “Palestine” instead of Palestinians. They were Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mario Rubio of Florida – both of whom vied for the presidential nomination this year – as well as Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

AIPAC, post election, remains committed to two states, its spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, told JTA. “Our position has not changed – we continue to support a two-state solution,” he said.

Some media have taken note of the removal of a reference to “two states” from AIPAC’s peace process page on its website. It remains, however, on other key pages, including its mission statement, its hand-out on the peace talks and on a page backing direct negotiations.

To be sure, other pro-Israel groups are outspoken in advancing two states, including Americans for Peace Now and J Street. But while both those groups have in the past formed alliances with individual Republicans, larger mainstream groups are more interested, and have been more successful, in maintaining a middle ground between Democrats and Republicans.

Some groups, to be sure, reject the inevitability a two-state solution and are happy to see it sidelined. In a statement opposing Gen. James Mattis, a leading contender for secretary of defense in a Trump administration, the Zionist Organization of America asserts that “a Palestinian state, at least at this time and in the foreseeable future – would be a Hamas-Iran-dominated terror state that threatens Israeli and U.S. security.” The ZOA rejects Mattis in part because he supports the two-state solution.

For groups like the ADL, the AJC and AIPAC, however,the Trump administration represents what could be a radical departure from a number of orthodoxies both parties have shared beyond a commitment to a two-state solution. These include a robust U.S. posture abroad, the preservation of close alliances with western-leaning states, and a commitment to tolerance and a rejection of racially divisive language.

The ADL, under its recently installed CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, has chosen a more confrontational path, charging Trump and one of his top advisers, Stephen Bannon, with advancing troubling echoes of anti-Semitic rhetoric and, during the campaign, claiming the Trump camp, “with its regular use of anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric, has appealed to bigots and racists.”

Harris, in his statement, chose to identify problematic trends without necessarily identifying them with Trump or the Republicans.

“We aspire to live in a society which doesn’t simply ‘tolerate’ diversity, but welcomes it, seeing it as a vital component of who we are as a nation,” he said. “We seek in our relations with other communities to enhance mutual respect and understanding, and to build coalitions of conscience in defense of shared values