by Mitchell Plitnick
You have to admire the tenacity of J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group. Or maybe it’s the desperation born of running out of options. In any case, if there is to be any hope for a negotiated resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, J Street, however well-intentioned, is demonstrating precisely what we must not do.
Just days after the Obama administration announced it was taking a “pause” in its efforts to broker an agreement, J Street sent out a message trying to rally the troops. In that message, they said that this moment “…is an opportunity to take stock and ask some tough questions.” Unfortunately, they make clear in the very same message that they are doing neither.
Here is what J Street refers to as “our plan”:
- First, we’re going to urge President Obama and Secretary Kerry to stay engaged and not to walk away. Resolving this conflict remains an American and Israeli interest.
- Second, to move forward, the Administration should put forward an American framework for a final status deal, build international support for it, and go to the parties and tell them the time has come to say yes or no to a reasonable plan for ending the conflict. So we’ll be calling for stronger American leadership, not less engagement.
- Third, we’ll be speaking out even more strongly about the direction in which Israel is headed. Those on the farthest right of Israel’s politics have formed a “one-state caucus.” They are willing to forsake Israel’s democratic character for unending settlement expansion throughout the West Bank. That’s a choice that most of the world’s Jews disagree with and it runs counter to the values and interests of both Israel and the United States.
This plan reflects a sense of futility. There is nothing here that raises the question of why almost every round of talks for the past twenty years has ended in failure. The closest thing the U.S. can point to as a success during that period is the Wye River Agreement in 1998, when President Bill Clinton exerted personal pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, for his troubles, got Netanyahu to implement a redeployment that had already been agreed upon. Not a lot to show for over twenty years of work.
Yet J Street, in essence, advocates more of the same. The “toughest question,” and the one they don’t want to ask comes down to the internal paradox that J Street faces. On one hand, they are always advocating “robust diplomacy” on the part of the United States. On the other, J Street has consistently opposed any sort of material pressure on Israel, whether economically or diplomatically, to get them to change their policies. That they continue to hold this position goes a long way toward explaining why nothing, especially the results of Israeli-Palestinian talks, ever changes.
In 1998, Bill Clinton was able to put public pressure on Netanyahu, without having to resort to threatening U.S. military aid to Israel or really much else in the way of material pressure. But that was a different time. The reason Clinton was successful was because the specter of an Israeli Prime Minister alienating a U.S. President was a significant political problem in Israel. Indeed, it contributed significantly to Netanyahu’s defeat shortly thereafter by Ehud Barak (although, paradoxically, the right wing’s sense that Netanyahu had sold them out at Wye was at least as big a factor). In today’s Israel, as long as the people know the military relationship is intact, defying the U.S. can be a political plus, and Netanyahu has since proven that he can insult, humiliate, even spit in the proverbial face of a U.S. President without real consequence.
That’s why J Street’s prescription is so badly out of date. The rightward shift of the Israeli public since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, along with the increasing clarity in recent years of the strength of virtually unconditional Congressional support for a wide array of Israeli policies, have emboldened Israeli prime ministers. They know that the United States will not exact any penalty for Israeli defiance on matters related to the Occupation (wider regional matters may be different). If further proof were needed, the opposition from within his own party to Barack Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze in 2009 provided that. It is no longer sufficient for a U.S. President to make his wishes clear; Israel will not move on the ever-deepening occupation without significant, tangible pressure. But J Street opposes any such pressure.
The “tough questions” that J Street, and other groups seeking a reasonable and non-violent end to this conflict need to answer don’t stop there. The failure of not only the latest attempt by John Kerry, but of the entire process over twenty-plus years now raises a much bigger question.
To date, there has only been one path to that sort of a solution, the two-state version as envisaged by the Oslo Accords and the subsequent evolution of events. It hasn’t worked. After twenty years, the occupation is far more entrenched; the settler population has exploded and its growth will continue to accelerate; the PLO has fallen into disarray and has lost a lot of support, but no clear alternative has presented itself; the Israeli electorate has moved sharply to the right; and Washington’s ability to pressure Israel has grown weaker with each successive president since 1992.
The byword about this process has been that there is no other choice, but this is nonsense. Not long ago, Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Officer for the CIA, suggested on this site that the two-state option was dead and new ideas, essentially variations on a one-state formula, would have to be devised.
I agree that those formulations need to be considered anew. I still don’t believe a single state will really work, but the moment demands that anyone who can make a case for any solution must be heard and taken seriously. What is most dangerous right now is falling into the comfortable trap of trying the same thing that has failed for twenty years. The only formulation that has ever been attempted was the Oslo formulation and it has failed. There is always another option. We need to find one that will work, not stubbornly cling to a fatally flawed plan that has finally died and pretend there is still even the remotest possibility that it will work.
It is precisely for this reason that I have been picking on J Street in this article: because I still believe that a two-state formulation must be found. I have nothing against a one-state outcome in principle; as long as that one state guarantees it will always offer safe sanctuary to Jews fleeing persecution– the kind that didn’t exist in World War II — I’m perfectly comfortable with it. But I have no faith that it can work, as we see all around the world the collapse of and/or violent conflicts within multi-ethnic or -confessional states (Iraq, Yugoslavia, and most recently Syria, South Sudan and Ukraine, just to name a few). Given that level of doubt, and the fact that there is currently no groundswell of political support anywhere for a one-state outcome, I cannot see how it would work. But I remain open to someone showing me how the difficulties could be dealt with, as we all must consider new options in the wake of Oslo’s death.
But a new two-state concept doesn’t really have the full advantage over one state that some may contend, if they base that contention on the idea that a two-state formulation has global acceptance. That’s because any two-state formulation must scrap Oslo and start from scratch, so it would have to be sold anew. In my view, in order to succeed, a two-state formula must include the following elements, few of which were characteristic of the Oslo Process:
- It must be based fundamentally not on Israeli security or even Palestinian freedom, but on fully equal rights – civil, human and, crucially, national – of all the people living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
- It must be based on international law, including UN Security Resolutions, the Geneva Conventions, and all other relevant international treaties.
- It must be based on open borders and deep cooperation between the two states, rather than as much separation as possible.
- It must not treat as legitimate “changes on the ground” that Israel has intentionally brought about to block a realistic two-state outcome, but it must also seek a path to minimize the upheaval of mass relocation of either settlers or Palestinians. An open-border system may help facilitate this.
- It must acknowledge and respect the Palestinian refugees’ claim for return and find a way to accommodate it in a reasonable fashion that neither undermines prospects for peace nor treats the right of return as anything less than that—a right.
- Both states must be required to produce a constitution that guarantees full and equal rights to all minorities within its borders, no matter how the state chooses to characterize itself. Such a constitution also needs to guarantee that Jews and Palestinians around the world are guaranteed that the respective states will offer them safe haven in the case of persecution.
- Any deal will have to be enforced by the international community. Israel will hate that, and many Palestinians will see that as limiting their hard-win sovereignty. But it is extremely unlikely that these arrangements will work just because of good intentions, as Oslo proved conclusively.
That’s a basic framework that I see as workable for an equitable two-state solution. Lots of compromise on both sides, but also a practical approach that allows both Palestinians and Israelis to maintain their national identities.
Of course, I don’t expect a politically centrist, Washington-centric group like J Street to accept such a formulation. But I do expect that, if they are serious about wanting A two-state solution rather than stubbornly sticking to the failed experiment that has been referred to as THE two-state solution, they will start talking and thinking of new ideas about what such a solution will look like.
There are one-staters who advocate a secular-democratic single state. There are right-wing Israeli one-staters who advocate a single state that legally enshrines Jews as dominant above Palestinians. Those ideas are advancing today because any reasonable person understands that the Oslo process is dead and has been proven to be unworkable, and these ideas are beginning to fill that vacuum. If we want to see a two-state solution emerge, as I think we need to, we need to re-think the basis of that solution and build one that avoids all the bias and mistakes of Oslo.
J Street, as champions of the two-state solution, this is your time to show that you can truly lead. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to do so and not play scared by clinging to the only solution that has actually been tested and which led to a dead-end.