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IS TRUMP’S PICK FOR AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL THE DEATH-KNELL OF THE PEACE PROCESS?
by Ron Skolnik
HOW WILL WE KNOW when the two-state solution has been relegated to the dustbin of history? Will a timer go off? Or a Chinese gong sound? Will it be announced by text or email or tweet? I suspect no grandiose proclamation will be made by the United Nations, nor any official press release issued by the White House or Israel or the PLO. So how will we know that the possibility of a two-state accommodation for Israel and Palestine has moved into our rearview mirror?
I imagine that, like many major social and political processes, the demise of the two-state solution, when examined in retrospect, will be seen to have occurred not on any one momentous historical occasion, but through a series of incremental milestones of varying degrees of importance. None of these developments, in and of itself, would have been able to deal the two-state solution a death blow, but, like an execution by a thousand cuts, each will have drained a bit more life out of the plan until its final expiration was nothing more than formality or footnote. When its final curtain comes down, it will merit one paragraph, maybe two, on page 19 or 20 of the New York Times, if there’s anything to report at all.
Nonetheless, when the documentarians and historians look back at the quaint idea of two states, they will probably cite certain developments as significant markers along its path to ultimate oblivion: One of these will likely be Donald Trump’s nomination of David Friedman as the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
AN IDEOLOGICAL OPPONENT of the two-state solution, Friedman, it must be said, has made no attempt to conceal or disguise his viewpoint: Earlier this year, for example, this real estate and bankruptcy lawyer who, like the President-elect, lacks any previous experience in diplomacy or government, wrote in an op-ed for the pro-Settlement Arutz Sheva website that the two-state approach is “an illusory solution in search of a non-existent problem.” Claiming to speak on behalf of those under occupation, he argues that the Palestinian majority “cares [not] a whit about whether they are governed by Abbas or Netanyahu” –- that is, by a Palestinian-Arab president or a Jewish-Israeli prime minister. If anything, Friedman suggests, Palestinians would prefer integration into Israeli society over independence.
Instead of a two-state arrangement, Friedman told Haaretz in June that there are “creative ways to allow people to live in peace.” One option that he’s mentioned is a binational state in which all Jews and Arabs in the area of Israel/Palestine would have a single government -– though Friedman has carefully refrained from committing to Arab-Jewish equal rights under such a system. He has stated, however, that Palestinian statehood is “not ... an American imperative” in Trump’s eyes and that the President-Elect would not be bothered by a binational outcome.
Friedman insists, moreover -- in keeping with the post-truth and fake-news wave washing over the world -- that Israel could comfortably incorporate the entire West Bank and still maintain a “solid 65 percent [Jewish] majority.” Claiming (falsely) that “Nobody really knows how many Palestinians live” in the Occupied Territories, he bases his conclusions on numbers put out by former Israeli diplomat Yoram Ettinger, whom Israel’s leading demographers have called a “charlatan” who “invent[s] things to enable the annexation of the territories.” Ettinger’s population stats for the West Bank and Gaza, it should be noted, diverge widely from those accepted even by the Israeli government.
Advocates of settlement and annexation are, sadly, a dime a dozen within a certain influential minority of American Jewry. Friedman’s viewpoint, in this sense, including his hateful name-calling (he accused President Obama of “blatant antisemitism” and defiled the Holocaust by terming J Street “far worse than kapos”), is highly disagreeable, to be sure, but also rather unremarkable. Once confirmed by the U.S. Senate, however, Friedman would no longer be just another rightwing crank, but the hand-picked delegate to Israel of the American President and the representative of American foreign policy towards Israel. With this in mind, and based on Friedman’s, and Trump’s, statements to date, and on the GOP’s new, extremist platform on the Middle East, here is an outline of what we might reasonably expect to see over the next four years:
- No negotiations: Barring a major change to Israel’s hard-line political leadership, there will be no peace process. Full stop. Friedman has shared Trump’s belief that it’s up to Israel, and Israel alone, to determine “how the Israelis and Palestinians should live side by side;” Trump is “not going to ... push Israel” in any way.
- No international initiatives: There will not be any significant diplomatic push by the international community. The Trump administration will veto any move at the UN and might make good on threats to defund any other international organization that dares to lay out terms of reference for an eventual Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
- Jerusalem explodes: A rash and inexperienced Trump might well take up Friedman’s reckless call to “recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and ... move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.” With Jerusalem arguably being the major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fallout from this move, both in the diplomatic sphere and on the ground, is liable to destabilize the region.
- Settlements will grow like mushrooms after the rain: Trump himself has encouraged the Israeli government to “keep going” with West Bank settlement construction and his ambassador-designate favors unceasing construction in the Occupied Territories, as if the area were a legal, sovereign part of Israel. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Jerusalem Post is reporting that Netanyahu has plans for “unprecedented new construction” beyond Israel’s sovereign borders. Repatriating masses of Israeli settlers under a two-state agreement is rapidly becoming an increasingly unworkable scenario.
- Annexation of the West Bank: Friedman has said that Trump would support Israel’s unilateral annexation of at least parts of the West Bank, a step that is being actively promoted in recent years by powerful elements within the Israeli governing coalition.
- Boycotters, including settlement boycotters, will be targeted: The Trump/Friedman GOP rejects the term “occupation,” and believes there is no difference between sovereign Israel and areas under its military control. As a result, those who boycott the settlements alone, in addition to those who support boycotting and divesting from all of Israel, will probably be the target of punitive legislative action at the Federal level.
- Israel’s anti-Occupation forces will be even more vulnerable: When Prime Minister Netanyahu threatened to retaliate against Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem this past October after its director had spoken out against the Occupation at the UN, the Obama administration stood up, in the name of free expression, for Israel’s civil society NGOs. After January 20th, these groups will no longer have a defender in the White House or the American embassy to Israel.
CAN THE PEACE PROCESS SURVIVE the next four years of American malignant neglect? Perhaps. The two-state era has survived wars, unspeakable mass terrorism, the assassination of a prime minister, incitement to violence, closures and blockades, home demolitions, settlement expansion, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, property destruction, land confiscation and more. It has survived so much, in fact, that one is tempted to believe that the option will last forever.
But it won’t. Unless implemented, the vision of “two states side by side, in peace and security” will eventually atrophy (with some believing that we have already passed that point of no return). A critical mass in Israeli and Palestinian societies will discard it; the international community (including American society) will move on to alternative ways forward. And Israel and its supporters in the Diaspora will be left with the stark choice they have desperately wished to avoid for the past fifty years: Jewish state or democracy. By 2021, there might no longer be a third way.
Ron Skolnik is associate editor of Jewish Currents. His writing has been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, Palestine-Israel Journal and elsewhere. He previously served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel and as director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA). You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.