It is always gratifying to see warmth and friendship on display between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. That was certainly the case when Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington this week for his first meeting with Donald Trump since he took office on January 20th.
This bilateral relationship is unique. No other country in the world plays the outsized role in the life of Israel that the U.S. does. And no other country in the Middle East – or, for that matter, just about anywhere – is as enthusiastic, reliable, and valuable an American ally as Israel.
That’s why good personal chemistry between the leaders, built on a rock-solid foundation of shared values and interests, is essential for both sides. Prospects for that good chemistry going forward are high, and there can be little doubt that the strong bilateral link will only grow more so.
But a fly in the ointment was President Trump’s comment, at the joint press conference, on the idea of a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He suggested that he may be upending longstanding American policy on the subject by saying: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
Was this comment premediated or spontaneous? Either way, it stands, for the moment, as U.S. policy – and it is, frankly, quite troubling.
Let me be clear.
I don’t for a moment doubt President Trump’s commitment to Israel: it is strong and it is real. Moreover, I’m not transfixed by the two-state mantra, as if it were some magical elixir. And I fully respect the Israeli democratic process and the mechanisms it provides for Israelis to chart their own future.
At the same time, I ask myself, as a lifelong advocate of Israel’s quest for security and peace, what are the options?
Truth be told, there is no “ideal” path.
Sure, for some on the left the way forward is so easy and obvious that they can’t quite grasp why everyone doesn’t share their outlook.
In essence, for them it’s all Israel’s fault and, therefore, Israel’s responsibility to fix. They’re infected by the “IOI syndrome” – “If only Israel” did this and that, all would be hunky-dory and Immanuel Kant’s “perpetual peace” would envelop Israelis and Palestinians alike.
They simply discard anything that might upend their airtight ideology.
After all, why allow themselves to feel intellectually challenged? Rather, act as George Orwell trenchantly wrote in 1946: “If you possess information that conflicts with the prevailing orthodoxy, you are expected to either distort it or keep quiet about it.”
Hence, why permit “trifling” matters like terrorism, incitement, glorification of “martyrdom,” delegitimization of Israel, or past Palestinian refusals to embrace a two-state accord to get in the way of the “cause”?
And why even pause to think about the blatant hypocrisy of ignoring Palestinian suffering at the hands of fellow Arabs, while going into a frenzy at every alleged claim of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians?
And for some on the right, it’s no less easy.
They, too, suffer from what President John F. Kennedy called “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
Just close your eyes to the realities on the ground and pretend that the status quo can be maintained forever, when it so clearly cannot, at least not if Israel is to maintain the Zionist dream of Jewish sovereignty in a majority-Jewish – and democratic – state.
Or pray for some deus ex machina that will one day simply remove the Palestinians from the land and allow Jews to be left alone.
Or rail relentlessly against the two-state idea, as if destroying it would somehow produce a better thought, when it has not.
Or hope against hope for Jordan to reenter the picture in the West Bank and Egypt in Gaza, as was the case until 1967.
No, the dreams and illusions of both dogmatic groups make little sense on closer examination. That leaves the broad swath of the center. Those who inhabit it have to live with the unsettling but real-life challenges of persistent contradictions and, ultimately, unpalatable choices.
The two-state deal poses inherent risks that are too quickly ignored or glossed over by some who champion it—the threat of creating another failed or failing Arab state; its proximity to Israel’s population centers; and the danger of a Hamas takeover.
But writing off the two-state prospect also presents grave dangers for Israel and Zionism both internally and internationally, including long-term occupation and its corrosive effects; growing vilification of Israel in the global arena; ever deeper fissures within world Jewry; and pressures on Israel’s democratic make-up.
In the end, however fraught with difficulty the two-state path might be, the one-state alternative is even more menacing because it is simply not sustainable. Sooner or later, it would sound the death knell for Zionism as we know it. Hence the concern about President Trump’s comment, even if this is surely not what he intended.
I can only hope the next time the president has an opportunity to give voice to American policy, he will consider doing so along the following lines:
“There is obviously no easy solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If there were, it would not have persisted for the past nearly 70 years. Of all the possibilities, though, the United States continues to believe that the most viable is to press ahead in the search for two states for two peoples. In that effort, we are fully ready to engage, as in the past. And I can assure you that we understand the potential challenges for Israel’s security in exploring this pathway. That’s why America will do everything in its power to mitigate them, and to ensure that our indispensable ally never, ever stands alone. We will always – and I mean always – have Israel’s back, both in word and, where it counts most, in deed.”
David Harris is CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).