As we commemorate the centennial anniversary of the San Remo Conference, Israel is at a critical juncture in public diplomacy.
First, a brief refresher:
Held in Italy in 1920, the San Remo Conference affirmed the language of the Balfour Declaration, written just two-and-a-half years earlier, into a binding international treaty to establish a Jewish homeland under the British Mandate in what was then known as Palestine.
Subsequently, in 1947, the UN voted to divide the territory into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab, with an internationalized city of Jerusalem. Which is to say that, had this been the final word on the matter, we would celebrate the 73rd anniversary of these states living side by side in November. Instead, after Israel declared its independence some six months after the vote, multiple Arab nations attacked the nascent country, beginning a decades-long conflict.
The case for Israel’s willingness to compromise with Palestinians is long and persuasive. As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and east Jerusalem. Following the war, Israel’s offer of territorial compromise was greeted by the three no’s of the Arab League’s Khartoum Resolution — no negotiation, no recognition, and no peace with Israel.
Since then, in repeated efforts to reach a lasting peace, Israel relinquished 92 percent of the territories it had captured, offered generous terms for the establishment of a Palestinian state by Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and unilaterally withdrew from Gaza.
In turn Israel was rewarded with two intifadas, thousands of rockets fired from Gaza, and the opprobrium of the world for “illegal occupation” of Palestinian territory. Of course, we all remember the final insult in the waning days of the Obama administration, which declined to use its veto power, ensuring the passage of UN resolution 2334 declaring east Jerusalem — and the Western Wall — “occupied territory.” Has there ever been another country demonized for capturing land during a defensive war?
Fortunately, the U.S. State Department now considers this territory disputed rather than occupied, and the Palestinians, woefully unprepared for statehood, dismissed the Trump Peace Plan on arrival, cancelled its agreements under the Oslo Accords, and suspended security cooperation with Israel.
While there are significant concerns about the Trump plan, including questions about Palestinian citizenship within the territory to be controlled by Israel, it offered Palestinians a state and gave them an incentive of $50 billion in economic aid to prop up its battered economy. Abba Eban’s old dictum, that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” is again in play.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing to implement some form of annexation in the disputed territories beginning July 1. But following through with such a plan would be a strategic blunder of historic proportions.
One of Netanyahu’s great achievements over the course of his long tenure was developing excellent, albeit de facto, strategic relations with the Gulf states, which share Israel’s common enemy, Iran. As reflected in an op-ed written by the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.S. in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, this progress would dissolve with annexation of any form, and the Jewish state’s peace treaty with Jordan could also be at risk.
Similar exhortations by Germany’s foreign minister and other allies reinforced this message, and disregarding their pleas would further Israel’s diplomatic isolation. Israel needs the support of the European Union, as it is their largest trading partner.
They also must stay in the good graces of the U.S., which stands ready to assist Israel against Iranian aggression. Against this backdrop, perhaps the slow progress of the U.S. State Department in approving annexation is by design a stalling technique to keep as many options for territorial compromise as possible on the table to boost the administration’s hopes to broker a deal. This should signal to Israel to not rush to assume sovereignty over the territories.
Advocates for annexation believe that Israel must act soon in case President Donald Trump is voted out of office in November. Polls consistently show the president well behind Democratic front runner Joe Biden, and particularly unpopular among young Americans, whose sympathy has been drifting toward the Palestinians for several years now. Will Trump risk losing more votes by giving Netanyahu the green light on annexation even though his vast evangelical, pro-Israel backers will support him no matter what he does?
And how would it play out if Netanyahu, with the president’s approval, were to proceed with annexation, only to watch Trump ousted from the White House a few months later? Annexation could widen Israel’s growing rift with the Democratic Party and put Biden in the awkward position of having to choose between angering the Israelis by rescinding his predecessor’s approval, or defying the will of his base by declining to do so.
On the other hand, for the time being, the status quo is working out well for Israel, with the Palestinian statehood issue a tertiary one, even for the Gulf states. Let the onus be on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table — their intransigence is more damaging to them than to Israel, at least in the short term. And rather than setting off a self-made PR and foreign policy fiasco, Israel’s priority ought to be developing alliances to help them head off the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Finally, as a more-than-four-decades-long supporter of Israel through donating to UJA campaigns, promoting aliyah, organizing rallies, lobbying Congress, and as a representative of the first federation in the country — Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — to offer assistance to Gush Etzion settlements during the intifada, I am deeply troubled by the tremendous dissension that will undoubtedly materialize in our community as a byproduct of annexation.
Despite Israel’s right to claim these territories as its own, I sincerely hope they defer for now — for the sake of strategy — to keep our friends happy, forge new allies, and, of course, maintain shalom bayit, peace in our own home.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.