Trump’s ambassador to Israel dances on the grave of ‘two states’ but BDS can change the tune
With the selection of his senior campaign adviser on Israel, David Friedman, as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, President-Elect Donald Trump has signaled that the United States will not only continue its steadfast support of the Israeli government, but will in fact further accommodate the government of Benjamin Netanyahu by breaking with official U.S. opposition to illegal settlement construction in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
It’s troubling enough that Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer by trade, opposes any ban on Israeli settlement construction and has asserted on the record—contrary to multiple U.N. resolutions—that settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is “legal.” What’s more, Friedman himself actively supports settlement expansion. He has personally donated thousands to the settlement Beit El, and heads both the organization Bet El Institutions and its U.S.-based charity, the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center.
Like the vast majority of West Bank settlements, Beit El is located on land that Israel would in every possible “two-state” scenario have to concede to create a Palestinian state. How fortunate, then, that soon-to-be Ambassador Friedman doesn’t believe in creating a Palestinian state. He has explicitly argued that the two-state paradigm is a “damaging anachronism,” and that the so-called peace process in pursuit of that goal has been a “masterful game of extortion” in which the corrupt Palestinian Authority fleeces the U.S. government in return for lending Washington an air of impartiality in its dealings in the Middle East.
The real solution, he claims, is Palestinians’ “integration into Israeli society,” which in practice means that Israel will annex most or all of the West Bank (a proposal that far-right members of Netanyahu’s cabinet like Naftali Bennett have been advocating for years). Baruch Gordon, director of development at Friedman’s Bet El Institutions, confirms this somewhat ironic convergence between the right wing of Zionism and the left wing of Palestine advocacy: “The debate is no longer about a Palestinian state—yes or no—but freedom and equality for Arabs to what extent.”
To what extent, indeed! Granted, Friedman, Gordon, and their ilk clearly intend to argue the other side, but the demand for equality for all (in however many states) is precisely the conversation the all-inclusive, rights-based framework of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been laying the groundwork for.
As 2016 draws to a close, Palestine advocates find ourselves in a confusing but far from hopeless position: At the same time as we’ve made unprecedented inroads to the mainstream U.S. discourse on Israel-Palestine, it’s hard to imagine how the Trump administration could possibly be any less inclined to put serious pressure on Israel.
Friedman isn’t the only pick that confirms this suspicion. The new Deputy Secretary of State will be George W. Bush’s former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, who never met a war he didn’t like and consistently outflanks even the most hawkish of his fellow Republicans. Among top State Department officials, none in recent memory can claim a more vociferous affinity towards Israeli aggression than Bolton.
Indications are strong that the personal positions of Bolton and Friedman will largely set the tone for U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine under Trump. Friedman assured Trump supporters in Jerusalem during the campaign that, “a Trump administration will never pressure Israel into a two-state solution or any other solution that is against the will of the Israeli people.” Sure enough, as of this year, there is no longer any mention of a two-state solution in the GOP platform, which expressly rejects the designation of Israel as an “occupier.”
While it’s fair to say this shift constitutes a right turn for the Republicans, it nonetheless jibes perfectly with previous efforts to outflank the Democrats on this issue, most notably repeated promises to recognize Jerusalem as the “undivided capital” of Israel, and to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. This policy—which the current Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has reiterated support for in the wake of the election—was always a de facto rejection of a two-state settlement: No Palestinian state could be viable if it didn’t include East Jerusalem, the hub of Palestinian economic life. This makes it official.
To the extent that the BDS movement in the United States aims specifically to pressure Israel through a change in U.S. policy, we seem to be further away from that goal than we were before the election—or, for that matter, further away than we’d likely have been had Hillary Clinton won.
On the other hand, BDS has never been exclusively about putting direct pressure on the U.S. government. BDS campaigns have targeted institutional and ideological connections to Israeli apartheid in virtually all spheres of civil society. Today, U.S. public opinion on Israel-Palestine is the most progressive and polarized it’s ever been. This year’s annual Brookings Institution survey of “American Attitudes Towards the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” found that almost half (46 percent) of Americans think the United States should react to new settlement construction by “impos[ing] some economic sanctions” on Israel.
The most revealing result, however, came in the 2014 Brookings survey, which saw the percentage of Americans who support the creation of a single democratic state in Israel-Palestine jump from 24 percent the previous year to 34 percent.
Crucially, when respondents were told to consider a scenario in which “a two-state solution is not possible,” a whopping 71 percent of Americans (84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans) favor the creation of a single state with full equality between Jews and Palestinians over a single state that preserved Israel’s “Jewishness” (its ethnic character as a Jewish state) over its “democracy” (its pretension to liberal values of universal equality).
What does it look like when the “two-state solution is not possible?” It looks like the government of Egypt postponing its own U.N. Security Council resolution reaffirming the illegality of the settlements and calling for the cessation of all settlement activity, which it stresses “is essential for salvaging the two-state solution.” Despite having vetoed a similar measure in 2011, the Obama administration had indicated its intention to abstain, in keeping with other recent developments in its cowardly balancing act between total deference to Israel and upholding decades of nominal U.S. support for a two-state solution.
Trump, however, had called for a veto of the resolution, which one can’t help but suspect gave the Netanyahu government that much more clout as they pressured Egypt to call off the vote. It would be prudent to take this as a sign of things to come: Ambassador Friedman and the rest of the Trump administration will be perfectly happy to let Israel do whatever it wants, two states be damned.
Earlier this week, the resolution passed, with the United States abstaining as promised. Obama’s current U.N. ambassador Samantha Power responded to criticism by Netanyahu by pointing out that the decision was consistent with U.S. policy on ending the “conflict.”
“One cannot simultaneously champion expanding settlements and champion a two-state solution,” Powers added.
Too true—and soon enough, the Trump administration will disabuse us of any lingering illusions to the contrary. It’s unclear what would happen to the Gaza Strip if Israel were to annex the West Bank, but it’s conceivable that a final settlement may involve Egypt, which recently indicated a desire to increase economic cooperation with Gaza, and has opened the border at Rafah Crossing more frequently since the beginning of 2016.
At this point, it’s hard to argue that a Palestinian state looks more “pragmatic” or “feasible” than a more just alternative, but one old line of the two-state advocates still rings true: No one’s ideal solution is going to be realized. Not even the all-powerful U.S. government has been able to manufacture its ideal outcome, and neither will Palestine solidarity activists in the United States. Nor should we. But so far, we’ve been right about one thing: grassroots BDS organizing, and mainstreaming the discourse around it, is our most viable option to as Americans to force Israel to respect Palestinians’ human rights. There is always a tipping point—we just don’t know what it is and how many people will, until then, live and die in misery and unfreedom.
As the liberal Zionist paradigm of “two states for two peoples” fades from a utopian last gambit into a practical impossibility, David Friedman gets his wish. But so, too, do we get an opportunity to finally be “the other side” in this debate.