Cracks in the US consensus on Israel should worry Tel Aviv

Even as prospects for a Palestinian state dwindle, Americans are splitting along left-right and young-old axes

July 7, 2020 - Washington, DC, United States: Protestor holding a banner with the words "American Jews say defund Annexation" at a protest  near the home of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner against Israel's possible annexation of the West Bank. The protest was organized by IfNotNow and IfNotNow DC. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)No Use UK. No Use Germany.
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Two weeks ago, Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal Jewish-American commentator made waves by announcing, in a 7000-word essay, that after decades of dedicated support for a two-state solution he is abandoning support for Jewish nationalism and embracing a one-state vision for Palestine-Israel.

He is hardly the first Jewish American to renounce a Jewish ethno-nationalism, but he is the most prominent in years. Predictably, he was viciously attacked with slurs like "traitor" and "Nazi" by die-hard co-religionists.

His article is one more symptom of the collapse of the once-near-unanimous mainstream American support for Israel and a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

That consensus is collapsing on both sides.

It is not just liberals such as Mr Beinart who are embracing the idea of a single state between the river and the sea. Much of the effort of the Trump administration, with its widespread Christian evangelical and a few wealthy right-wing Jewish supporters, on Israel policy has been designed to move the US away from that same fading two-state consensus.

Under Donald Trump, space has been carved out on the Republican right to abandon any meaningful two-state vision and embrace the establishment of a greater Israel through unilateral annexation.

The proposal released by the Trump administration in January purports to be a two-state vision. But the Palestinian state it suggests would lack most key attributes of sovereignty and be entirely surrounded by the greater Israeli state that would annex up to 30 per cent of the West Bank.

Everyone understands that this is not actually a two-state scenario, not least because Palestinians will never agree to such an arrangement. It is, of course, cynical rhetorical cover for Israel's annexation and the death of a two-state future.

The main purpose of Mr Trump's proposal was not immediate Israeli annexation, and therefore no such annexation has yet been attempted. Instead, the primary aim was to shift US discourse to create space for mainstream American political voices, beginning on the Republican right, to embrace the vision of a greater Israel at the expense of a two-state agreement.

FILE - This June 29, 2020, file photo shows the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, in the West Bank. Peter Beinart, an influential American commentator, has shocked the Jewish establishment and Washington policy-making circles by breaking a long-standing taboo: He has endorsed the idea of a democratic entity of Jews and Palestinians living with equal rights between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.  (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
The West Bank. The UN has described Thursday's agreement as an opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian re-engagement. AP Photo

Meanwhile, most Democrats, especially in Congress, remain rhetorically committed to the two-state vision that the US effectively agreed to in 1993. Only one member of Congress, the Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, has, like Mr Beinart, embraced a one-state agenda.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden keeps insisting he is going to fight to protect the potential for two states and has vowed to "reverse" anything Mr Trump may do in the coming months that threatens it.

Although almost all leading Democrats remain committed to a two-state model, and even many leading Republicans obviously have serious qualms about annexation, the old consensus regarding Israel, peace and the special relationship between the two countries is seriously cracking.

A clear partisan divide and a nascent generational rift are both creating fissures on Israel that have not existed in the US for decades.

Much of the responsibility for this lies with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has consistently steered Israel's government into a close alliance with Republicans and against Democrats. He all but campaigned for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and has frequently interfered in US domestic politics, invariably on the side of the Republicans. It may have served his personal political aims but not Israel’s national interests.

U.S. Rep Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) speaks at a news conference after Democrats in the U.S. Congress moved to formally condemn President Donald Trump's attacks on the four minority congresswomen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott
Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, is the only member of US Congress to embrace a one-state agenda. Reuters

More importantly, the epicentre of the most ardent US support for Israel, or at least greater Israel and annexation, has shifted from its traditional Jewish-American base to a new, and far more radical, evangelical Christian one. This is largely the basis for Mr Trump's support for annexation.

The language announcing Mr Trump's recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and moving of the US embassy there from Tel Aviv was plainly that of evangelical Christians rather than Jewish Zionists. Moreover, the event was officially celebrated by fundamentalist Christian radical pastors, some of whom have anti-Semitic histories, and all of whom are ardent supporters of the occupation because they believe it will hasten the divinely ordained end of times.

These evangelicals are delighted by Mr Trump's annexationist policies. The Jewish-American mainstream was plainly not. Virtually all prominent Jewish-American Democrats in Congress oppose the plan and annexation, and the largest Jewish-American groups were notably unenthusiastic if not outrightly opposed.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) speaks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting on Middle East security in New Orleans, Louisiana November 7, 2010. Netanyahu will tell Biden on Sunday that only a credible military threat can deter Iran from building a nuclear weapon, Israeli political sources said. REUTERS/Lee Celano (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) *** Local Caption ***  NOR101_USA-ISRAEL-_1107_11.JPG
Then US vice president Joe Biden seen with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington in 2010. Israelis do not have much to fear from a Biden administration.Reuters

Several of the most important of these groups have let it be known they are prepared to defend Israel in the event of annexation but only with great trepidation and unease, and all but the most extreme plainly hope it does not happen.

Mr Beinart is certainly speaking for a growing group of mainly younger Americans, including Jewish Americans, who are no longer able to reconcile their liberal and equality-valuing principles with Israel's policies. Particularly given that, if it annexes large chunks of the West Bank, Israel will be effectively enforcing a new separate, radically unequal and apartheid-like permanent reality on Palestinians and Israelis alike, this sentiment and constituency is only likely to grow.

That it lacks a coherent narrative, practicable vision, and, by far most importantly, does not have the support of any significant political grouping of Jewish Israelis or Palestinians on the ground, will probably not prevent this idea from continuing to gather support, especially among the young.

US President Bill Clinton (C) stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin (L) as they shake hands for the first time, on September 13, 1993 at the White House in Washington DC, after signing the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories. (Photo by J. DAVID AKE / AFP)
US President Bill Clinton (C) stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin (L) as they shake hands for the first time, on September 13, 1993 at the White House in Washington DC, after signing the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories. (Photo by J. DAVID AKE / AFP)

So, as prospects for a Palestinian state and a peace agreement dwindle, Americans are splitting along left-right and young-old axes.

As things stand, the situation is sustainable for Israel. Most Democrats are still supportive and Israelis do not have much to fear from a Biden administration. Some Republicans, though, and especially the Christian fundamentalists among them, are at times more strident Jewish nationalists than most Israelis.

But anyone who values the US-Israel relationship and is not worried about this trajectory lacks an imagination.

Increasingly, Democrats, especially younger and more liberal ones, are being systematically alienated from Israeli policy and even Zionism. And with “friends” like Mr Trump's evangelical allies, Israel does not need any enemies.

All this means the once-inviolable "special relationship" between the two countries will not remain a settled issue in American politics much longer. That is a seismic shift, and it is not good news for Israel.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington