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Netanyahu Feels the Heat

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has at last acknowledged, with caveats, the need to establish a Palestinian state. Actually, Netanyahu's Palestine is primarily caveats, with a dash of state thrown in for appearances' sake.

In his speech last Sunday, the prime minister failed to address the continual growth of Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank, where close to 300,000 Israeli settlers live. The Palestine that Netanyahu envisions must steadily shrink to accommodate the growing number of Israeli settlers in its midst. It would be a collection of barely contiguous cantons.

By refusing to address the growth of the settlements, Netanyahu has avoided a fight with the hard-right forces in his governing coalition. Yet he has asked the leaders of the Palestinian Authority to accept a state whose contours no Palestinian could willingly accept. He demands a Palestine with no army, yet also demands that the Palestinian Authority suppress Hamas as a precondition for negotiations with Israel -- something, as my American Prospect colleague Gershom Gorenberg has pointed out, that the very well-armed Israeli army has been unable to do.

By refusing to take on the settlers, however, Netanyahu may be cruising for a clash not just with Israel's longtime critics but with its longtime supporters as well. The Obama administration, Democrats on the Hill who have long championed Israel's interests and a clear majority of American Jews all view the growth of the settlements as a major impediment to a two-state solution, and, therefore, a threat to Israel's long-term survival.

The Israeli government speaks of the "natural growth" of the settlements, but, says Queens Democrat Gary Ackerman, "having children can't be an excuse to expand a settlement. Neither side should be expanding beyond its perimeters or attacking the other side. No expansions, no how, no way, no shticks, no tricks."

What underpins the resolve of both the administration and Congress to push the Israelis, no less than the Palestinians, toward a settlement is the clear approval this approach commands among American Jews. A poll taken in March for J Street, an organization of American Jews that favors a territorial accord, showed 72 percent support among Jewish Americans for U.S. pressure on Israel and its Arab neighbors to reach an accord, and, remarkably, 57 percent support for U.S. pressure just on Israel. The poll also found 60 percent opposition to the expansion of settlements.

These numbers reflect changes in American Jewish life and thought that have been building for decades. At a broad level, the intense identification of American Jews with Israel has been waning for many years. More narrowly, the past couple of decades have brought the rise of American Jewish groups that try to pressure the U.S. government to push for a two-state solution -- a clear counterweight to more established organizations such as AIPAC that generally try to pressure the U.S. government to do whatever the Israeli government would like it to do. The J Street PAC, an organization that's just three years old, raises funds for members of Congress who back policies leading to a two-state solution, much as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) encourages its backers to donate to candidates who toe a more hawkish line.

But why the waning of American Jewish identification with Israel over the past few decades? At its birth, and for several decades thereafter, Israel commanded virtually consensual support among American Jews. But for the past 42 of its 61 years, Israel has ruled over Palestinians who are citizens neither of Israel nor of a Palestinian state. They are -- a condition that should be familiar to Jews -- stateless. The blame for their statelessness is surely their own as well as the Israelis', but in time, the Israeli role in the Palestinian disaster has eroded American Jewish identification with Israel.

By every measure, American Jews remain intensely committed to liberalism and to universal and minority rights. As a democratic state rising on the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel once embodied those values to its supporters, but 42 years of occupation have rendered Israel a state that tests those values more than it affirms them. Its most fervent American Jewish backers, to be found disproportionately among the Orthodox, identify with it for reasons that are more tribal than universal. All of which has created the political space for President Obama to try to craft a resolution to one of the planet's most venerable and dangerous disputes.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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