President Donald Trump opened the door on Jerusalem last month, and this week Israel’s right-wing coalition sought to bust the hinges.
And Jewish leaders and political observers are standing in the doorway a little dazed, trying to figure out if a series of Knesset votes and proposals could doom the idea of a two-state solution. In the last few days Knesset activity from the right was aimed at annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, requiring 80 votes (out of the parliament’s 120) to cede part of Jerusalem in any future peace plan, and attempting to redraw the city’s map so that several fast-growing Arab neighborhoods would be outside its limits.
“You could argue this is the counterpart to the Trump move on Jerusalem,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. He was referring to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which overturned decades of American policy, and his vow to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Miller believed the Knesset’s action will make it “much more difficult to create an environment for negotiations, let alone deal with the core issues.”
(This was before Trump tweeted late Tuesday his frustration with the Palestinians’ failure to engage in negotiations. He suggested that if they were not more forthcoming, the U.S. would cut its funding to the Palestinian Authority.)
…peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
The response among American Jewish leaders to the Knesset moves has been largely along political lines, with dovish advocates voicing concern about a more aggressive effort to keep the Palestinians at bay, and those on the right insisting the Knesset moves are consistent with widespread support for assuring Jerusalem’s status in Israeli hands.
Rabbi Phillip Scheim, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said he believes some Conservative Jews may find the Knesset’s action a “bit excessive. The other side would argue there has not been a peace process. But in a sense, this move pushes things further away. And it would not necessarily be helpful to Israel’s stature in the world.”
Also expressing qualms about the vote was Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents, who said he feared the move will have the effect of exacerbating the estrangement between Israelis and many American Jews.
“Younger American Jews don’t have the same affinity for Israel as older Jews and the cavern is getting wider,” he said. “Sadly, the Israeli government is losing the support of American Jewry and it will be difficult to overcome.”
Voicing a different view was B’nai B’rith International CEO and Executive Vice President Dan Mariaschin.
“Since 1967 our organization has adopted dozens of resolutions referring to Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel,” he said. “It strikes a chord with [American Jews]. To a large extent, it is a city that touches all of us.”
Mariaschin said he has “lost count of the opportunities the Palestinians have had to come to the table and negotiate. They are not doing that nor are they demonstrating good will.”
PA President Mahmoud Abbas asserted that the U.S. is in “full support” of Israel, whose “main goal,” he said, “is the consolidation of an apartheid regime in all of historic Palestine.”
Mariaschin countered that “the Knesset is democratic, its members are elected, and they are entitled to [pass legislation]. What we are watching here is a reflection of the fact that the Palestinians are showing no interest in negotiations.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said his group has not taken a position on the Knesset actions. Referring to the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been weakened politically by several corruptions investigations, Hoenlein said: “People [in Israel] are getting into political mode because they are smelling [early] elections and want to put forth proposals that are not new ideas. They are advocating longstanding issues and many felt this was a moment of opportunity” to score points with their supporters on the right.
Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Global Social Action Agenda, said it is his organization’s policy to support the Israeli government in power and that he believes the Knesset vote simply reflects “the Likud members playing to their base.”
“I would hope and expect the majority of Jewry would believe Jerusalem should be unified,” he said. “How that plays out is beyond my pay scale. [But] nothing any American Jew says will change the paradigm in Israel now. … It simply reflects the reality on the ground in Israel. I am not surprised the Likud made such a move for its constituents.”
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation, said “the only long-term solution is a two-state [and] anything that distances that is bad for Israel and world Jewry and Israel’s relationship with Europe, the U.S., the West and Israel-disapora relations. From that perspective, it is very disconcerting.”
But Hoenlein pointed out that President Donald Trump in announcing the U.S. decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem pointedly said he still supports a two-state solution and has repeatedly implored the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. And he said Netanyahu has also voiced his support for it.
Nathan Diament, executive director for Public Policy at the Orthodox Union, the largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella group in the U.S., said his members have “held fast to the centrality of Jerusalem forever, and the fact that Israel is now legislating on that is very welcome. One would certainly hope that the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and ensuring it will remain a united city would not divide the Jewish community. The community from right to left has basically had one position on Jerusalem’s indivisibility and its centrality.”
But Libby Lenkinski, vice president of Public Engagement for the New Israel Fund, which is dedicated to social justice and equality for all Israelis, said in a statement that Israel’s ultra-right-wing government is making it a priority to use Jerusalem as a wedge to keep the peace process from moving forward. This bill makes it more difficult to come to a final-status agreement that leads to an end of the occupation and two states for two peoples.”
She noted that there are likely to be other bills introduced in the Knesset regarding Jerusalem’s future.