Op-ed by Khaled Elgindy and Lara Friedman, published in Foreign Policy on April 3, 2019.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at an inflection point. The peace process birthed 26 years ago in Oslo, Norway, is officially dead, and a two-state solution is off the table—at least for now. Moreover, both the Trump administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu are today pursuing policies designed to render permanent Israel’s control over all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and ultimately foreclose a negotiated two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Doing so highlights the two governments’ shared embrace of illiberalism and, more broadly, their shared contempt for international law, human rights, and the post-World War II liberal world order.
That is the bad news. The good news is that the collapse of the peace process has opened up space for a long-overdue discussion in the United States on a new way forward on Israel-Palestine.
This development comes at a rather propitious moment in U.S. politics. Today, there is a growing and newly energized grassroots constituency that is focused on the protection of human rights, civil rights, and dignity, both at home and abroad, and which now includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an integral part of its agenda.
Sen. Bernie Sanders understood this when, in the course of his 2016 presidential campaign, he chose to make Palestinian rights and the need for a more even-handed approach to the conflict a centerpiece of his foreign policy, a move that was well-received by the party’s base and may have prompted other Democratic candidates to moderate their own positions.
Likewise, the election to Congress of Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both of whom openly support the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, makes clear that, after more than 50 years of occupation and 26 years of a failed peace process, growing numbers of American politicians and voters are seeking a new way forward on Israel-Palestine.
Several of the Democratic senators who are in the race for president in 2020—including Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Sanders, an independent—also see this shift, as evidenced in February by their rejection of the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, which, if passed, would give political cover to efforts to quash political free speech in the name of fighting BDS. Although the measure passed the Senate by a vote of 77-23, Democrats were split virtually down the middle, 24-22 including Sanders. That bill, which has not yet been taken up in the House, was backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Senate Democratic leaders but vocally opposed by grassroots groups, including MoveOn.org, J Street, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Indivisible, as well as a number of politically engaged students on college campuses across the country.
This expanded debate has created an unprecedented opportunity to conceive a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on what is required to achieve a durable peace that both serves U.S. interests and upholds America’s values, with respect to the welfare of the people of the region, rather than what is deemed politically expedient.
Though the Trump administration continues to put off the release of its much-touted peace plan, several important elements of President Donald Trump’s approach are already known, including the decisions to take key issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, and a fully sovereign Palestinian state “off the table.” The administration has now openly endorsed Israel’s ability to keep land acquired by force, effectively negating United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and the “land for peace” formula on which the peace process has been based for more than half a century. We saw this first in Jerusalem—where by recognizing the city as Israel’s capital without a political agreement Trump broke with U.S. policy dating back to before the establishment of the state of Israel—and more recently in the Golan Heights. It seems clear that, if ever released, the plan would be a nonstarter.
But while it may be tempting to attribute the sorry state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process entirely to the Trump administration’s policies, in reality the U.S.-led peace process had already run aground well before Trump’s arrival.
Since the start of the Oslo process in 1993, successive administrations from both political parties officially opposed Israeli settlements and called for ending Israel’s occupation, in keeping with land for peace and the goal of two states, while simultaneously pursuing policies that actively undermined all of these. The results of this ambivalence can be seen in the explosive growth of Israeli settlements over the life of the peace process, with the settler population growing from roughly 280,000 at the start of the process in 1993 to well over 630,000 today.
These stark realities have produced very different responses from America’s two main political parties. While Republicans have by all appearances made their peace with, if not welcomed, permanent Israeli control over the West Bank—even going so far as to officially deny the occupation exists, according to the 2016 Republican platform—Democrats are increasingly divided over how or even whether to address the issue. Indeed, many within the Democratic Party fear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dividing the party and becoming a political Achilles’s heel that could hurt its chances heading into the 2020 election.
These fears are not entirely unfounded. During the 2018 midterm campaigns, the issue was weaponized against candidates such as Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida, Cynthia Nixon in New York, and Scott Wallace in Pennsylvania. Abrams was taken to task for voting “no” on a state BDS bill over free speech concerns; Gillum was criticized for having supporters who back BDS; Nixon was attacked for having signed a petition in support of Israeli artists who refused to perform in a settlement; and Wallace was aggressively scrutinized for having headed a fund that gave money to progressive causes, including some groups that support BDS. Since then, we have seen the kind of hyperscrutiny elected officials who are viewed as unsympathetic to Israel, including Rep. Omar, are subjected to, with every statement or tweet parsed for evidence of anti-Semitism. Further, a poorly chosen phrase or careless word can both cause real pain and be cynically politicized to hijack the news cycle for days and weeks (if not longer), all of which exacts a political toll and serves to distract from other issues of concern to the party.
The shifts in the U.S. political landscape are still in their infancy, and the outcome is anything but assured. Given the political difficulty associated with challenging Israeli policies and the overall hopelessness of the Trump approach, many in the Democratic Party establishment seem to believe their best option is to double down in support of the policies of the pre-Trump era while simultaneously imposing limits on dissent and debate. A bipartisan resolutionintroduced recently in the House and Senate embodies this approach, pairing a fulsome restatement of commitments to peace and a two-state solution with scathing indictment of those who venture past specified red lines for debate and protest by engaging in or supporting boycotts of Israel.
But, with respect to dissent and protest, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The status quo ante no longer represents a political safe space to which Democratic leaders can realistically hope to retreat in order to avoid attacks.
While criticizing Israeli rights abuses or advocating for BDS remains politically radioactive in Washington, the views of Sanders or Omar are well within the Democratic and broader American mainstream. According to a recent poll by the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami, for example, 40 percent of Americans and 56 percent of Democrats support imposing sanctions on Israel in response to continued settlement activity.
Indeed, the Democratic leadership is increasingly out of step with the party’s rank and file, large elements of which are no longer willing to acquiesce to Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians or to unconditional U.S. financial, political, military, and diplomatic support for Israel while it engages in policies that violate democratic principles, human rights norms, and international law. The mobilization of grassroots activism in opposition to the anti-BDS bill at the beginning of 2019 was another example, as is the near-constant introduction of pro-BDS measures on college campuses around the country.
Efforts to stifle debate and delegitimize dissenting voices in any event will likely only highlight and exacerbate internal divisions; rather than averting attacks, such efforts will fuel them.
The way forward: A values-based approach
U.S. management of the peace process was already fundamentally broken long before Trump took office. By failing to challenge the dynamics that define and sustain the conflict—particularly Israel’s ongoing and ever deepening occupation—U.S. mediation has helped entrench the status quo while reinforcing, and even institutionalizing, the vast power imbalance between the two sides.
Policies that are built on denial—whether through attempts to erase the reality of Israeli occupation or the refusal to challenge it—cannot succeed. A more responsible way forward—for the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians—requires a new approach grounded in international law and in universal norms and values. Primary among these must be the principles of equality, respect for human rights and dignity, and mutual accountability, bolstered by an explicit recommitment to uphold Security Council Resolution 242 and other relevant U.N. resolutions, as well as to international human rights laws, as embodied in various conventions and treaties. Under such an approach, efforts to promote peace, security, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians flow from these principles, resolutions, and law—rather than exist in constant tension with them.
A key objective of this new approach should also be to create and defend the political space for the broad spectrum of political opinions that exists on Israel-Palestine; efforts to suppress criticism of Israel or quash constitutionally protected political free speech, including boycotts, must be rejected.
A genuine two-state solution, including the establishment of a fully sovereign state of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem, can and should remain the desired outcome; pursuit of this outcome cannot be cover for perpetual occupation and disenfranchisement of Palestinians. Moreover, the focus on territorial partition should not preclude consideration of other equitable solutions, such as confederation between Israelis and Palestinians, some form of shared sovereignty, or a single binational state.
Challenging decades of thinking on Israel-Palestine is, by its nature, politically uncomfortable. However, the demise of the Oslo process makes such a re-examination imperative. This is a crisis that U.S. political leaders cannot avoid and an opportunity they cannot afford to miss.