Part III: The American Response to the Extension of Sovereignty

Last week, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, together with White House so-called peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, appeared together in the bowels [well, not really the bowels, but I write this metaphorically) of the earth below Jerusalem, more specifically, below a Palestinian village, Silwan, just outside the walls of the Old City. Symbolically, Friedman and then Greenblatt smashed through the remaining rock membrane protecting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Using a sledgehammer (actually, it was a small 10 pound yellow-handled one with a sharp edge used by archeologists), they broke through the last stone obstacle on the dig uncovering the ancient Pilgrimage Road to Jerusalem.

Needless to say, the wall remaining was deliberately left very thin. Trump, though recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, though specifically not recognizing all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, smashed any claim of Palestinians to the Old City as well as the neighbourhoods abutting it, at least very symbolically and with the world watching. Friedman, to prove that he was as learned about history and archeology as well as contemporary conflicts as his boss, Donald Trump, pronounced that the existence of the Pilgrimage Road, “lays all doubts to rest” of the Jewish claim for the entirety of Jerusalem. So much for the assurance by the Trump administration that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not pre-judge the outcome of which side would have sovereignty over the whole city.

To focus on the contemporary political significance, I avoid commenting on the scientific authenticity behind the archeological dig. The Pilgrimage Way was not only about Jewish rights in Jerusalem, but about the “spiritual underpinnings” and “the bedrock of principles” underlying the political foundation of America according to Friedman. Music for the ears of Trump’s evangelical base! 

This sensational photo-op said more than a thousand diplomatic pronouncements. The smashing of the peace process was deliberate and blatant and lacked any indication of subtlety. It was intended to mark the recognition of the extension of Israeli sovereignty to all of Greater Jerusalem. Further, given the timing, the photo-op also signalled the American preparation for recognizing the extension of Israeli sovereignty to settlements in the West Bank. Would it be only the settlements in Area C or would the application of Israeli law also extend to Israeli settlements in Areas A and B, or, as the right prefers to call them, cities and neighbourhoods in Judea and Samaria?

Recall that at the time of Friedman’s confirmation hearings on 1 March 2017, tens of thousands of American Jews, hundreds of rabbis and major groups like the Reform Movement joined with J Street and all but two Democratic senators in making clear that Friedman’s right-wing views were dangerous and totally out of step with American values and decades of U.S. foreign policy. However, when David Halbfinger of the New York Times recently explicitly asked Friedman about American support for annexation, the latter responded: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” The evidence was overwhelming: extending sovereignty salami-like is understandably confused with annexation, though de facto annexation of Area C in the West Bank may be in the works.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, the Israel Policy Forum along with eight other Jewish American organizations, including five from the Reform and Conservative movements (the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, its Rabbinical Assembly, and MERCAZ, the Zionist Conservative affiliate, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, Ameinu and the National Council of Jewish Women), urged the administration to oppose West Bank annexation (my italics) in the face of a pledge by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex West Bank territory. However, Netanyahu made no such pledge. Decoys should not be confused with real targets warranting comment and criticism.

The actual American diplomatic direction was confirmed by Jared Kushner. The author of the “Deal of The Century” and the organizer of the Bahrain Conference indicated unequivocally that the reference to “two states” will not be in the language of any proposed peace deal. “If you say ‘two states’ to the Israelis it means one thing, and if you say ‘two states’ to the Palestinians it means another thing. So we said, let’s just not say it. Let’s just work on the details of what that means.” And what it means, for Jared, is a very truncated state geographically for the Palestinians. What it means is a very truncated sense of sovereignty for a prospective Palestine.

The Democrats, at least those on the left of the party, were understandably critical. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley drafted a resolution that was co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, Tom Udall and Dick Durbin: “the policy of the United States should be to preserve conditions conducive to a negotiated two-state solution,” not a unilateral one-state solution abutted to a mini- and semi-Palestinian state. “Unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank would jeopardize prospects for a two-state solution, harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors, threaten Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity, and undermine Israel’s security.”

The problem is that there are no plans for annexation, unilateral or otherwise, of even parts of the West Bank. To repeat, the creeping extension of sovereignty is not annexation, but those efforts move inexorably towards annexation. Since there is no longer a two-state solution that is envisaged that would currently be acceptable to both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, there is no two-state solution in the traditional sense to harm.

Paradoxically, each of Israel’s steps at increasing sovereignty can be correlated with improved relations with many Arab, especially Gulf, states. Hence, the declaration that such moves will “harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors” rings hollow. Further, as far as these Arab states are concerned, Israel’s political moves have not seemingly harmed the country’s security. If anything, common security concerns vis-à-vis Iran have brought Israel and the Gulf states into closer security cooperation. And Israel’s democratic identity? Without full annexation, Israel is not inheriting a Palestinian population to which it is obligated to offer citizenship.

How can Israel’s extension of sovereignty to settlements in all areas of the West Bank be perceived as a threat if they do not amount to annexation? By mis-describing the problem, the criticisms miss their mark and the impact is significantly diminished. Focusing on the ostensible ultimate goal rather than the salami sovereignty expansion strategy, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer led a campaign to discredit the resolution as the above members of the Democratic Party misleadingly claimed that Netanyahu had promised to annex the West Bank. Misunderstanding the politics undermines intentions considered laudable by the left.

These Senators were not the only ones to misinterpret the Israeli government’s strategy and Netanyahu’s promise three days before the last election. Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg warned that, “if Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his promise to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill.” The exaggerated claim was matched with the promise of a feeble punishment that does nothing to alter facts on the ground.

There has also been pushback from Republicans who reiterated their support for a two-state solution. That opposition ranges from strong supporters of Donald Trump, such as Lindsey Graham, to Republican Party critics, such as Mitt Romney. As the critics have said, “The incessant push for annexation [note, not actual annexation itself] has political consequences, and it is entirely the fault of the pushers, who won’t be satisfied until they have brought the calamity to pass.”

Dr. Michael J. Koplow, the Director of the Israel Policy Forum in Washington, callsthe salami method of extending sovereignty “partial annexation,” meaning that the moves taken are partial steps towards a goal of annexation. Rather than clarifying the muddle, I prefer to avoid characterizing what is taking place as annexation, however qualified, for when annexation is not in the immediate works, the likelihood is that the criticism will be compromised. Nevertheless, Koplow is correct in concluding that each new step in expanding sovereignty creates more obstacles to reversing the process. “Turning back the clock on the new political realities is going to be next to impossible.”

The nine sponsors of the letter to Trump of 19 April 2019 referred to above, though incorrect in focusing on annexation of the whole of the West Bank, were quite accurate in anticipating that the Netanyahu announcement will “lead to greater conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, severely undermine, if not entirely eradicate, the successful security coordination between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and galvanize efforts such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that are intended to isolate and delegitimize Israel,,,It will create intense divisions in the United States and make unwavering support for Israel and its security far more difficult to maintain.”

There are two clear results of the effort to expand sovereignty to West Bank settlements, interpreted as stages in the move towards annexation. Such steps, even the promise of taking such steps towards annexation, undercut the bipartisan support for Israel. Second, these initiatives also divide the Jewish diaspora.

What seems clear is that the dividing line between right and left has become a chasm. The problem arises from the intention of extending sovereignty to settlements in Areas A and B in the West Bank. Area C is de facto almost under the complete sovereign control of Israel. However, extending Israeli law only to settlements in Area C would signal that Israel is ready to cede full sovereign control of Areas A and B, except for security, to the Palestinians. Netanyahu is explicitly unwilling to do this. Such a step would be a definite pause in the incessant expansion of sovereignty towards annexation. That is now unequivocally and undeniably a central plank of the Likud-led government. With the aid of Donald Trump, those efforts have been accelerated.

If true, it also means that the issue is no longer land for peace, but a choice between Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty. For Jews on the left unwilling to make such a choice, this will mean they will either withdraw from the struggle or adopt a resigned critical position as a marginal movement. Except in America. BDS will be able to increase its recruitment of North American Jews, especially on college campuses. And most American liberal Jewish academics will be torn as America’s unanimous legislative support for Israel, already displaying fissures, begins to develop a deep fracture line.

On the other side, the Israeli right is not stupid. The majority on the right recognize that they have little to gain by engaging in wholesale annexation. The risks are too well known and the benefits too few. That is why a continuation of salami tactics of extending sovereignty rather than legislating outright annexation can be expected.

However, if efforts are made to extend Israeli law to settlements in Area A and B, the political left is not stupid either. It can read the writing on the wall. As the goal comes nearer and the breaches of red lines more obvious, extending Israeli law to settlements in Areas A and B may serve as the tipping point to initiate a much larger process of American and American Jewish alienation from Israel. If, as expected, the Democrats are elected to both the presidency and even the Senate, the pitch of criticism of Israel can be expected to rise a number of decibels and cooperative arrangements threatened. This prospect may, in turn, fire up the right to provide even stronger support for Donald Trump and even convince some conflicted Jewish Americans to vote for him.

Obviously, there are far too many factors in play to engage in any reasonable kind of prediction. But the various possible scenarios are more or less clear. Profound events, depending on their character, could shift the weight easily from one side to the other. The right is probably prepared for such an opportunity. Is the left? In the absence of a Palestinian Authority deeply committed to peace, except possibly on terms unacceptable to most Israelis, the left lacks both direction as well as a set of strategies and tactics to reach that objective.

One final point. The imminence of a possible and even likely Republican defeat may embolden the right to take advantage of an American regime that is so fully onside. I suspect the issue to heat up considerably over the next year. I also suspect that the issue will cause tears in the fabric of the American Democratic Party as strong supporters of Israel in the party try to mute criticism while the activist base revs up for a more outspoken confrontation with Israel. It is possible that the support for BDS will spread beyond Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Watch the path that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes. Watch as the strident tone within both parties increases.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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