“We must all work toward that future: two states for two peoples. One Jewish with secure and defensible borders, and one Palestinian with its own flag and its own future. Today that dream seems remote. This is tragic.”
In his statement Sunday, March 4, at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, AIPAC chief executive officer Howard Kohr created a stir when he expressed support — essentially AIPAC’s support — for the two-state solution.
In fact, AIPAC’s mission statement calls for “all members of Congress to support Israel through … the promotion of a negotiated two-state solution — a Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state.” With changing policies in Israel and the United States, however, this phrasing struck a nerve for many conference-goers and observers in the U.S. and abroad.
Kohr received multiple stinging rebukes from Israel’s ruling party, Likud, and others on the right. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said the Gaza disengagement was proof that creating a Palestinian state would lead to further terror. Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan called for AIPAC to “update its talking points,” saying he was “astounded as to why such a great, meaningful organization as AIPAC, whose raison d’être is pro-Israel advocacy in the United States, would present the positions of the State of Israel (and of the U.S.) so inaccurately before senior government officials, senators and congressmen, and the general pro-Israel public.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has steadfastly avoided supporting a two-state solution since President Trump was elected, whereas during the Obama years, Netanyahu begrudgingly accepted the plan in principle. In his remarks at the policy conference on Tuesday, March 6, Netanyahu did not discuss this topic, but focused instead on Iran talking points and characteristics that have made Israel a leader in the modern world. Netanyahu sprinkled his speech liberally with biblical references and — as he has previously in recent years — used the holiday of Purim as a historical reference to the modern-day peril posed by the leadership in Iran.
In contrast, Avi Gabbay, leader of the Israeli opposition party Zionist Union, seemed to use the AIPAC plenary as a campaign stop for the next Israeli election and made it clear he strongly backs a two-state solution. “My parents left a Muslim-majority country to be part of a Jewish-majority country,” said Gabbay March 4. “And I will honor the difficult path they took. I will honor their dream by working for a safe, secure, democratic Israel, alongside a demilitarized state for the Palestinian people.”
J-Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami issued a statement praising Kohr’s renewal of AIPAC’s support for a two-state solution, calling it “refreshing.” At the same time, Ben-Ami called Trump and Netanyahu’s leadership “disastrous,” and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman “an obstacle to peace.” Furthermore, he said, “Netanyahu’s refusal to back a two-state solution, policies of creeping annexation, and support for settlement expansion are leading his country towards a one-state nightmare.”
In his address to the conference March 6, Friedman took a thinly-veiled jab at J-Street, saying the motto, “pro-Israel, pro-peace” is “blasphemous.” Friedman explained: “Pro-Israel and pro-peace sounds like a completely reasonable position. My friends, it is not. Using that praise plainly implies that there are people who are pro-Israel and anti-peace.”
“Pro-Israel and pro-peace is a redundancy,” said Friedman. “If you support Israel, you must by definition support living in peace ... and it’s dangerous to suggest otherwise,” quoting the ancient Jewish priestly blessing of peace.
“Peace is a core Israeli value and a core American value,” he said.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, in turn, explained this administration’s position during her speech March 6, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with showing favoritism to an ally.” This point elucidates the Trump administration’s position that the U.S. will serve as a broker to a peace that also serves the interests of its ally, Israel. Several speakers from the administration pointed out over the course of the conference that this is perhaps the most pro-Israel White House policy ever.
Friedman listed a “year of firsts,” applauding President Trump’s “fundamental change” in his approach to Israel-U.S. relations. For its part, however, the Trump administration has been careful not to take a clear stance on the two-state solution. In January 2018, Vice President Mike Pence told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi that the U.S. only backs the two-state solution “if both sides agree,” leaving wiggle room for an American administration that has taken steps to shake up the status quo on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Still, in the Trump administration’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2017, it is notable that language referencing the two-state solution was removed, as it was in the Obama Administration's 2015 NSS. Netanyahu has welcomed this new approach, saying a two-state solution is not possible in the current political climate.
What is certain is AIPAC’s uncertain future, particularly within the Jewish left. Pew Research Center’s 2017 report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” reported that 27 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, compared with 79 percent of Republicans. This trend has grown since the turn of the century, and it is a trend that is dangerous not just for the purposely and strongly bipartisan AIPAC, but for Israel, as well.
Whether AIPAC’s outreach to Democrats and its doubling down on a bipartisan approach and the two-state solution will keep Democrats in the fold remains to be seen.
By Kenneth S. Friedman