What could a left-center coalition achieve?

What could a left-center coalition achieve?

Second of a two-part series:

In my previous Riff, I tried to make the case for building a broad left-center Jewish coalition in support of the two-state solution, Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security. What could this coalition, which I believe represents the views of a large majority of American Jews, achieve?  

The first thing is clarity. You know the old saying: two Jews, three opinions. The fact that we are a politically diverse community enriches our discourse. But this diversity also can leave elected government representatives and opinion elites confused about where the Jewish mainstream stands on issues. A left-center coalition can communicate consensus positions on Israeli-Palestinian issues. 

For example, there is a vocal, right-wing constituency in Israel and within our community that advocates permanent control over the West Bank, essentially a one-state option, which would be accomplished by expanding settlements and legally annexing portions of that territory. This clearly is a minority position among American Jews, and I believe in Israel as well. The consensus — and it should be advocated clearly and unequivocally in the corridors of power in Washington, DC and Jerusalem — is in favor of two states. Moreover, even though the goal of two states appears to be out of reach for the time being, there also is consensus that the parties should preserve the viability of a future two-state solution and take incremental steps toward that outcome. My friend at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, David Makovsky, likes to use a baseball metaphor: It’s better to hit singles and doubles, he observes, than to always swing for a home run (i.e., a conflict-ending peace agreement) and miss. 

Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) has been the subject of heated debate in Israel and among American Jews for decades. Finding a consensus position on this issue has proven to be elusive, with the left generally arguing for a total freeze of settlements and the right encouraging their expansion. Historically, the center has been reluctant to weigh in. Now, however, I believe a consensus has crystallized around a middle position, namely, urging Israel to curtail its building activity especially beyond the major settlement blocs or separation barrier.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is an organization firmly planted in the center and supportive of a two-state solution. At its Board of Governors meeting last December, the organization adopted a comprehensive resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one section of which asserted: “…the core issue remains the rejection by Palestinian leaders and their supporters of the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty in its ancient homeland. However, we have long believed that Israeli settlement expansion is inconsistent with the aim of a two-state accord. In particular, construction and the reclassification of outposts beyond the security barrier…are not conducive to advancing prospects for peace.” 

AJC’s position on settlements is generally consistent with the April 2004 letter President George W. Bush sent to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the context of Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza. “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949…”

Another issue related to settlements is growing pressure from the Israeli and American Jewish right to legally annex sections of the West Bank. Officials of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), another important centrist Jewish organization, told me they oppose annexation. It would undermine, they said, the principle that the territories’ status should only be determined through direct negotiations between the parties. 

The left no doubt will continue to express strong criticism of Israeli settlement policy. But why not join forces with the center to build support for these more moderate, but important, positions that help preserve the viability of two states? 

It is true that the Palestinians officially recognized the State of Israel as part of the Letters of Mutual Recognition exchanged during the period of the Oslo Accords in 1993. This was a welcome step forward. It also is true that Israel is the militarily and economically stronger party in this conflict. Consequently, the left tends to place the lion’s share of blame for the current impasse on Israel. Yet, the left would build a stronger connection with the center by acknowledging that Palestinian rejection of Jewish nationalism and incitement being transmitted in Palestinian schools and media are serious problems. In addition, there is the toxic impact of the so-called martyrs’ fund, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) practice of paying stipends to families of those killed while committing acts of terrorism, or convicted and imprisoned. By acknowledging this and other troubling Palestinian policies and practices, the left would have more credibility when criticizing Israel. 

There also is much the left and center can do together on less contentious issues. The viability and stability of a future Palestinian state will depend on the vitality of its economy, the creation of a strong civil society and middle class, and the existence of effective security mechanisms. There is wall-to-wall agreement in Israel and among American Jews that, as part of a final status agreement, Palestinian refugees and their descendants should not be allowed to return en masse to Israel. Instead, they should be resettled in the new state or elsewhere, which would underscore the importance of Palestinian economic development.   

The new coalition could rally behind the Israel Policy Forum’s (IPF) initiative, the Two-State Security project, which, if implemented, would both enhance Israeli and Palestinian security in the short and medium term, and help protect the viability of the two-state vision in the long run. One big advantage of Two-State Security is that Israel can act independently, without getting bogged down in the discussion of whether there is a Palestinian partner for a peace agreement. 

At a recent meeting in New York City, IPF Israel Fellow Nimrod Novik highlighted several steps Israel could take to advance shared Palestinian and Israeli interests. Just one example involves the transfer of 10 percent of Area C in the West Bank, currently under full Israeli civilian and military control per the Oslo Accords, to Area B, which is under Palestinian civilian and Israeli military control. This move, he explained, would enable the PA to deploy its police force — which has been cooperating effectively with Israeli security personnel — into areas occupied by some 700,000 Palestinians now living without any semblance of law and order. A win-win for Israel and the PA.   

Advancing Two-State Security also spells out concrete measures for enhancing the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, increasing employment, addressing the problem of housing shortages, and strengthening moderate Palestinian forces in other ways. Moreover, there are signs that the Trump administration may be receptive to this approach. 

In his confirmation hearing, David M. Friedman stressed the value of Palestinian economic development. He even expressed recogniItion that some of Israel’s policies in the West Bank might be unduly “burdensome.” The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, knows Israel well, and he would be well served to become more acquainted with the Palestinians’ civil society and private sector. That said, the Trump administration needs to understand that economic development can only complement a political process that leads to Palestinian statehood. It cannot serve as a substitute.  

The efforts of Nablus-born Bashar Masri to build Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, should be, and I believe largely has been, strongly supported across the Jewish political continuum. The ultimate plan is to build 6,000 apartments accommodating 30,000 residents, and to create more than 10,000 jobs in construction, engineering, retail, health, and other sectors. Masri has been trying to lure Israeli and international high-tech companies to operate in the town, so far with limited success. When former PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad talked about the need to build a Palestinian state infrastructure before seeking diplomatic recognition — which is what the Zionist movement did pre-1948 — this is exactly the kind of project he had in mind. At J Street’s national conference last month, Bernard Avishai, a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an adjunct professor of business at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, maintained that, if the Israeli government was truly serious about moving toward a viable two-state solution, it would facilitate entry of Palestinian entrepreneurial talent into the West Bank. 

Non-political, people-to-people programs that bring Israelis and Palestinians together and build mutual understanding and respect also contribute toward a healthier more productive environment. Supported by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, HR 1221, a bill calling for the creation of a $200 million international fund to support such people-to-people programs, was recently introduced into the House by Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). This legislation was endorsed by the center — The Jewish Federations of North America, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, AJC, the ADL, and others. It may not be as sexy as a peace agreement signing on the White House lawn, but these efforts are crucial building blocks for peace.  

In summary, here is a left-center coalition to-do list: Unequivocally endorse a two-state solution and encourage the parties to preserve its viability; help the Palestinians build a state infrastructure and robust economy; support people-to-people programs. 

I welcome your input if you have additional suggestions. After all, there is much work to be done —  together.

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