Following 11 days of violence between Hamas in Gaza and Israel, President Joe Biden commented on his administration’s Mideast policy.
Asked at a White House press conference if there had been a change in the Democratic Party’s position on Israel, Biden said, “There is no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel, period. No shift, not at all…; my party still supports Israel.”
He then specified the conditions for peace. “Until the region says, unequivocally, they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace,” the president said. “[W]e still need a two-state solution. It is the only answer.”
Biden’s approach to achieving a two-state solution seems to be equitable. He affirms both Jewish and Palestinian national aspirations, asserting that each side has a claim to land and that neither side is going away. The Biden administration wants an independent Jewish state and an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security. To achieve this goal, the two parties must accept one another’s national claims; Palestinian refugees must resettle into the future Palestinian Arab state — not into pre-1967 Israel — and a clear endpoint to the conflict, with a cessation of all claims, must be established. And direct negotiations between the parties must ensue without preconditions from either side.
What is the primary obstacle to implementing this vision? On the surface, Israel appears to be the reluctant party. Compared to today’s climate, in 1977, when Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem seeking peace, Israelis opened their arms to him. But the bitter failure in 2000-01 of President Bill Clinton’s Oslo peace process, which began in the mid-’90s, and the fallout from Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 created skepticism among the Israeli population toward subsequent Palestinian efforts to achieve peace.
In contrast, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas consistently assures American diplomats that he will be a partner in the effort to achieve peace. At J Street’s recent National Conference, he again affirmed that the PA accepts the concept of a two-state solution.
But Israelis need more than mere statements to be convinced that an aging, unpopular, and corrupt Abbas — with no designated successor who can be relied on to implement any long-term agreement — is committed in a real path to peace. They must know specifically what Abbas means by a two-state solution.
Certain facts sustain Israelis’ reluctance to trust Abbas:
Abbas’s anti-Semitic views persist:
Decades ago, Abbas wrote a doctoral dissertation validating Holocaust denial. Diplomats had hoped that over the years his views had changed. However, on April 30, 2018, in a public address to the Palestinian National Council. he reiterated canards denying the Holocaust. He implied that the Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves due to their “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters.” He insisted that only a few hundred thousand had died, not six million. Furthermore, Abbas alleged that David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist movement collaborated with the Nazis to foment world sympathy for the creation of a Jewish state. He also falsely claimed that Jewish life in Arab lands had been idyllic, devoid of anti-Semitic episodes, “not even once.”
Abbas rejected previous efforts to effect a two-state solution:
• In 2001, after the failure of the Clinton peace process — which had been accepted by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak — chief U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross expressed frustration with Abbas. “While pleasant as always in our meeting” — at the end of the process in 2000 — “Abu Mazen [Abbas] was…unyielding on substance, saying that the Palestinians had made their concessions. They could only accept the full implementation [of the Arab interpretation] of the UN resolutions…both on territory and refugees…[and] that it would take time….” Ross went on to say that Abbas’s stance reflected his view that time was on the Arab side, and so he “did not want anything to happen soon.”
• In her memoir, Condoleezza Rice says that in 2008 Abbas rejected Prime Minister Olmert’s proposed concessions. These recommendations were more generous to the Arab side than the Clinton plan had been. Rice was amazed by how far the Israeli leader was willing to go; Olmert was prepared to give up nearly the entire West Bank, with equivalent land swaps between the parties. He offered to divide Jerusalem, internationalizing the “Holy Basin” in the Old City and some adjacent areas. As Arafat had done in 2001, Abbas said no. Abbas told Rice that the Palestinian Authority could not agree to a deal that would prevent millions of Palestinians from being able to “go home” — into pre-1967 Israel.
• On March 17, 2014, in a meeting in Washington, President Barack Obama presented Abbas with a long-awaited framework for an agreement that set out the U.S. administration’s views on major issues, including borders, security, settlements, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated a willingness to proceed on the basis of the framework, despite some reservations. Abbas remained evasive, and to this day, has not given a reply to the proposed framework.
Why hasn’t Abbas said yes to a two-state solution?
• No independent Jewish state is acceptable to him: Abbas and Fatah’s Central Committee have explicitly stated that “the Palestinians do not accept…that the State of Israel is a Jewish state.” Abbas does affirm that an “Israel” exists, but to him “Israel” initially must be a binational state, like Lebanon, of “Jews and…those who are not Jews,” until “returning” Arabs emerge as a majority. Abbas’s denial of independent Jewish statehood is buttressed by his parallel denial of the Jews as a people. To Abbas, Jews are simply “members of the Jewish religion.” In contrast to Arabs, Jews can have no national rights or claims.
• He denies any Jewish historical connection to the land: Abbas dismisses any evidence of Jewish sovereignty in biblical times, To him, “the members of the Jewish religion” never have been indigenous to the Land of Israel. They are, he claims, actually descendants of the medieval Turkish Khazar tribe. Abbas says that while “the Jews claim that 2,000 years ago they had a temple [in Jerusalem], I challenge the claim that this is so.” For Mahmoud Abbas, there were no Jewish settlements in the Land until the “recent Zionist incursion.” For him, Israel “is a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism.” Abbas’s strategy of historical denial severs Judaism’s links to Zion and our holy places. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish shrines must be placed under Islamic sovereignty with access limited at the discretion of Islamic authorities.
• Abbas cannot envision an endpoint to the conflict: In 2017, at an event marking the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, Prime Minister Netanyahu lamented that he had never met “a Palestinian Sadat.” What he meant was that Abbas — who’s been in power since 2005 — has refused to define an endpoint of the conflict, an end of all claims against Israel. Abbas demands that any of the estimated five million descendants of the Palestinian refugees be permitted to “return” immediately to pre-1967 Israel. He requires that their right to choose whether or not to exercise their return continue indefinitely into the future, with neither time limit nor numerical quota. In short, claims against Israelis never would cease.
• Abbas refuses bilateral negotiating with Israel: Abbas demands that negotiations be indirect, conducted through the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. He is unwilling to compromise with Israel either on the right of return or on borders. Abbas has affirmed, “I am not in a marketplace or a bazaar. I came to demarcate the borders of Palestine — the June 4, 1967, borders — without detracting a single inch.” Without land swaps and some flexibility, Abbas’s requirements are deal-breakers. It is impossible that the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will be relinquished, that the Jewish Quarter and the Kotel in the Old City will be surrendered, that the Golan Heights will be restored to Syria, that major West Bank settlement blocs will be uprooted.
• Abbas adds preconditions to start talks with the Quartet: On July 11, Israel’s Channel 12 reported a PA shopping list of pre-conditions, including reopening Orient House, the former PLO headquarters in eastern Jerusalem, and other Palestinian institutions that have been closed since 2001 and the outbreak of the Second Intifada; restricting Israeli police activity around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and reducing Jewish visits to its Temple Mount site; an end to Jewish construction in eastern Jerusalem; a halt to settlement expansion in the West Bank; a cessation of evictions of Arabs from eastern Jerusalem homes; a renewal of family unification, enabling Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to obtain Israeli citizenship via marriage to Arab Israelis; increasing the number of work permits for Palestinian laborers entering Israel; and a return of weapons confiscated from Palestinian security forces.
If Abbas and the PA were to affirm the validity of a Jewish independent state, accept returning refugees to settle primarily in the West Bank, and cite an endpoint to the conflict, Israelis on the center and left of the political spectrum would rise up, force new Knesset elections, and choose an Israeli government poised for direct peace negotiations without preconditions.
The path toward a two-state solution is clear. Advocates of President Biden’s renewed peace process should insist upon clarification by President Abbas and by a designated successor of the relevant content of their views.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell this year; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.