AIPAC rekindles old debate: Does Israel seek a two-state solution?

AIPAC rekindles old debate: Does Israel seek a two-state solution?

After lobby group's CEO calls for Palestinian statehood, Israeli hawks accuse him of misrepresenting the government's formal position on the matter. The only problem: there is none

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A Palestinian flag waves in front of the White House on December 8, 2017, in Washington, DC, at a protest against US President Donald Trump's declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. (AFP PHOTO / mari matsuri)
A Palestinian flag waves in front of the White House on December 8, 2017, in Washington, DC, at a protest against US President Donald Trump's declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. (AFP PHOTO / mari matsuri)

What exactly is Israel’s position on a two-state solution?

A plea for Palestinian statehood issued earlier this week by Howard Kohr, the CEO of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has brought the question into the spotlight once again, with settler leaders and top Likud officials arguing that official government policy opposes Palestinian statehood and angrily demanding the influential pro-Israel lobby chief disavow his remarks.

But there is no simple answer to this question, as the Israeli government does not have a clearly formulated position on the matter.

Between 2009 and 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu routinely declared his acceptance, in principle, of a demilitarized Palestinian state under certain conditions.

But since shortly after the election of US President Donald Trump, he has painstakingly avoided explicitly endorsing a two-state solution, while at the same time rejecting a one-state, binational solution and saying he wants the Palestinians to be able to govern themselves.

However, many ministers in his cabinet and most senior members of his ruling Likud party vehemently reject a two-state solution. Some hawkish MKs have repeatedly proposed legislation to annex all or portions of the West Bank to Israel — moves apparently designed to thwart the creation of a Palestinian state — but Netanyahu has so far blocked all such efforts.

AIPAC’s Executive Director Howard Kohr addresses the lobby’s policy conference, March 4, 2018 (AIPAC screenshot)

“We must all work toward that future: two states for two peoples,” Kohr told 18,000 delegates at AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference in Washington on Sunday. “One Jewish with secure and defensible borders, and one Palestinian with its own flag and its own future.”

Kohr, who has been at AIPAC’s helm since 1996, was roundly criticized by right-leaning Israelis, including Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and other influential figures in the Likud party.

“AIPAC is a big and important friend of Israel, but if it pretends to represent the official position of the State of Israel to elected officials in the United States, it must do so faithfully,” MK Yehudah Glick said.

“It is clear to the vast majority of government and coalition ministers that the establishment of a Palestinian state in the heart of the State of Israel means bringing terrorism to the heart of the state,” the US-born freshman lawmaker added.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan said AIPAC’s claim that Israel favors two states has “no basis in fact.”

In a letter to the heads of pro-Israel lobby, Dagan asserted that the group was inaccurately claiming the two-state solution was the endgame to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it had support from both Washington and Jerusalem.

He argued that neither the official guidelines of Israel’s current government nor Trump’s National Security Strategy made any mention of the proposal.

On its website, the pro-Israel lobby states that “Israel and the United States are committed to a two-state solution.” the section of AIPAC’s 2017 briefing book on the topic begins by stating, “Israel is committed to a two-state solution — a Jewish state living side-by-side in peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state. The United States must send a clear message that this goal can be achieved only through direct negotiations between the parties.”

Kohr himself, during a speech at last year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, said that “goal we desire” was a “Jewish state of Israel living side-by-side in peace and security with a demilitarized Palestinian state.

US Vice President Mike Pence speaking onstage at the AIPAC 2017 Policy Conference in Washington, DC, March 26, 2017. (Noam Galai/Getty Images via JTA)

“I am astounded as to why such a great, meaningful organization as AIPAC… would represent the positions of the state of Israel (and of the United States) so inaccurately before senior government officials, senators and congressmen, and the general pro-Israel public,” Dagan wrote to the AIPAC leadership.

Ahead of the last Knesset elections, Likud did not publish a program, thus avoiding having to take a formal stand on Palestinian statehood. Other parties in the coalition have varying views on the matter: the religious-nationalist Jewish Home list principally rejects a two-state solution, while the hardline-secular Yisrael Beytenu party calls for a Palestinian state in borders reflecting Jewish-Arab demographics. The Haredi lists and the centrist Kulanu party have not taken a vehement stance on the issue.

Netanyahu, in an interview days before the polls opened in March 2015, said that no Palestinian state would come into being under his watch, though he later backtracked and recommitted himself to the idea of two states for two peoples.

In mid-December, Netanyahu was asked by European foreign ministers in Brussels whether he accepts the two-state solution. He replied by asking what kind of state the second one would be: “Would it be Costa Rica or Yemen?” The former is a stable democracy in Central America, while the latter is in a state of war-blighted anarchy.

It’s time that we reassess whether the model that we have of sovereignty and unfettered sovereignty is applicable everywhere

A fews days later, the Likud Central Committee, the party’s top decision-making body, unanimously passed a resolution calling for the annexation of parts of the West Bank and unlimited construction in the settlements, a position that appears to be in blatant contradiction to a two-state solution.

In recent interviews, Netanyahu has sought to explain his position, indicating that the best the Palestinian can hope for is some sort of “state-minus.” This entity would not fully meet the criteria of statehood but would allow the Palestinians some measure of autonomy.

“I think it’s time that we reassess whether the model that we have of sovereignty and unfettered sovereignty is applicable everywhere around the earth, the globe,” he said last November at the Chatham House, a London think tank.

“I don’t want to govern the Arabs in the West Bank. I don’t want to govern the Arabs in Gaza either, but I want to make sure that that territory is not used against Israel, and therefore, for us, the critical thing is to have the overriding security responsibility,” he added. “When we talk about demilitarizing the West Bank, it will be demilitarized by us.”

US President Donald Trump (right)meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, March 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On Monday evening, hours after talks with US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu told reporters that “the Palestinians should have the power of government, except the power to threaten us.”

Asked by The Times of Israel if he told Trump that he supported, at least in principle, the establishment of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu merely said he told the president that Israel did not want to rule over Palestinians.

“I said that we have no desire to govern the Palestinians, but we have every desire to protect ourselves,” he said. “The main thing is that the security control west of the Jordan River remains in our hands, and we cannot see anyone else assuming that responsibility.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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