In July, the House passed H. Res. 246, a resolution opposing the BDS movement and reaffirming Congressional support for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite the recent contretemps between Republicans and Democrats over politicizing support for Israel and using the Jewish state as a wedge issue, the resolution passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 398 to 17, a total only made possible by the fact that it included both strong opposition to BDS and strong support for two states. It was a demonstration that a large bipartisan consensus on Israel still exists on some big tent issues, and given the critical nature of maintaining bipartisan support for Israel, it is a resolution that all Israelis should welcome.
Yet as was made clear on Monday, not all Israelis do. Twenty-one Knesset members wrote a letter addressed to “Members of the United States Congress” and “Members and Supporters of AIPAC” to express their concern and opposition to H. Res. 246 over its endorsement of a two-state solution. The 21 MKs stated that “the establishment of a Palestinian state would be far more dangerous to Israel than BDS,” claimed that two states is contrary to both the position of the Israeli government and the Israeli public, decried the possible establishment of “an additional Arab (so-called Palestinian) state in the region,” and concluded that even contemplating support for a Palestinian state is so dangerous that it should have been taken into consideration in the context of whether to support the resolution at all. In other words, in the estimation of these 21 MKs, BDS – something that the Israeli government has repeatedly described as a threat to Israel’s continued existence – is scary, but not so scary that fighting it is worth committing to a policy that has been the consensus majority position in the U.S. and Israel for two decades.
Much has been made of the letter, not least due to its directness in addressing members of Congress and AIPAC while over seventy such members are currently in Israel on a trip sponsored by AIPAC. It is important to put the letter into context, since it bluntly purports to speak for the government of Israel and the Israeli public, when the reality is starkly otherwise.
At first glance, it should be glaringly obvious that these 21 MKs represent nothing close to a majority, but rather a fringe. These are 21 MKs out of a total of 120, meaning that 99 MKs elected not to sign their missive. Not only are they not a majority of the Knesset, they are not a majority of their own political bloc. The right-wing bloc in the current Knesset – comprised of Likud, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Kulanu – is 65 MKs, meaning that 44 MKs from this group’s own ideological camp declined to stand with their 21 counterparts. Likud, the largest party in the governing coalition, has 35 MKs, yet only 14 of them signed the letter. This does not mean that there are only 21 MKs who have deep reservations about supporting a two-state policy, but asking Congress to ditch a policy that has been central to U.S.-Israel relations is a monumental step. No matter how you slice it, this letter represents a minority position.
And this minority position is a recklessly radical one. These 21 MKs are not dismissing two states as nonviable at the moment. They are not alleging that it is too risky to create a Palestinian state while questions about responsible Palestinian leadership and governance capability are prevalent. They are not questioning whether the appropriate security architecture is in place to alleviate Israeli concerns about pulling back from the West Bank. Rather, they are asserting that the two-state concept – no matter the environment, no matter the leaders, no matter the specifics – is inherently putting Israel at risk. This is not a statement of analysis but a statement of ideology, which if it was not clear from the content of the professed argument becomes abundantly so upon reading their delegitimizing description of a “so-called Palestinian state.” This group of MKs is entitled to their opinion and entitled to express it however they see fit, but for them to claim the mantle of the normative position and of being representative of Israelis writ large is farcically absurd. Israeli reticence to two states is almost entirely driven by understandable practical concerns, and not by a radical ideology insisting that Israeli security dictates seeking permanent dominion over another people no matter the circumstances.
Leaving their extremist positions aside, the myopia of this group of 21 MKs surrounding the connection between BDS and two states is in itself stunning. These two issues are intimately connected, as the largest driver of casual support for BDS – as opposed to what drives the true believers who founded and drive the BDS movement – is the ongoing absence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Most people who embrace BDS do so because they view it as the best avenue for protesting the occupation, even if the BDS movement has far more nefarious aims. Any hope that support for BDS will diminish without arriving at a two-state outcome is destined to forever remain in the realm of hope. And the reason that BDS remains an idea relegated to the radical sidelines is because there is still a widespread belief that the occupation is a necessary security measure but a decidedly temporary one. Once the status quo is declared permanent, as these MKs are urging Congress to do, the current state of support for Israel will become untenable, and BDS will move from the sidelines to the front and center.
If anything, what these MKs have done is not to raise questions about two states, but to raise questions about BDS. Time and time again, American officials and American Jews have been told by their Israeli counterparts that BDS presents a threat to Israel’s existence and that combating it is of paramount importance, yet here you have the hardest of hardline MKs conceding that perhaps BDS is not quite as threatening as they have claimed. Their opposition to two states is so virulent that they go so far as to concede that if the price of American support for battling BDS is American endorsement of a two-state paradigm, they would rather tackle BDS alone. This is quite an admission, and one worth remembering the next time an Israeli government official portrays BDS as a threat on par with any military challenges the country faces.
Thanking members of Congress for their rejection of efforts to deny Israel’s national legitimacy while in the same breath urging them to deny Palestinians’ national legitimacy betrays what is actually driving these 21 MKs. Their letter will not advance Israel’s security or its cause in the U.S. one inch. All it will accomplish is to instigate a race to the bottom, as it pushes Prime Minister Netanyahu in campaign mode to out-radical his radical flank and actively seek President Trump’s support for extending Israeli sovereignty over the settlements. And should this outcome materialize, this will be precisely what this group of MKs was aiming for, as they erode Israel’s security while claiming to be safeguarding it.