Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before direct peace talks in Washington, D.C., in Sept. 2010 (Photo/JTA-Getty-Jason Reed-Pool
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before direct peace talks in Washington, D.C., in Sept. 2010 (Photo/JTA-Getty-Jason Reed-Pool

New battle flares in Congress: two states or not two states

A pair of nonbinding resolutions under consideration in Congress this week both denounce the United Nations Security Council’s recent resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Additionally, they both castigate the Obama administration for abstaining and not exercising the U.S. veto.

But there’s a striking difference between the two House of Representatives resolutions: In one of them, the two-state solution is featured prominently, but in the other, the words “two states” are missing altogether.

Sponsors would say little on the record this week about the differences — but sideline observers clearly can sense a looming battle over whether it becomes U.S. policy to regard the two-state solution as alive or dead.

In one corner is the mainstream pro-Israel community, combining leftists and centrists and led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This camp seeks to preserve two states as a viable outcome for Israel and the Palestinians.

In the other corner is a deeply conservative and often Orthodox minority of the American Jewish community that includes figures who are close to President-elect Donald Trump. They want the two-state solution declared dead in order to pave the way for Israel to annex portions of the West Bank it still controls.

Score round 1 for AIPAC.

The Republican leadership of the incoming House of Representatives was scheduled to vote Jan. 5 on the resolution being backed by AIPAC. Southern California Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the committee’s senior Democrat, Eliot Engel of New York, were the resolution’s sponsors. It called on the United States to seek the repeal or alteration of the Security Council resolution, so that “it is no longer one-sided and anti-Israel.”

Meanwhile, the other resolution, brought out by Florida Republican Dennis Ross, the House deputy majority whip and a member of Trump’s transition team, was in limbo as of midweek, awaiting consideration by the Foreign Affairs Committee. This resolution, which doesn’t mention a two-state solution, was introduced just moments after the start of the 115th Congress with the support of 51 Republican cosponsors but no Democrats, according to the Washington Post.

In the Royce-Engel resolution, the two-state outcome appeared in the second paragraph: “Whereas the United States has long supported a negotiated settlement leading to a sustainable two-state solution with the democratic, Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized, democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security.”

But don’t count out the other side.

Notably, Trump has nominated David Friedman as ambassador to Israel, and Friedman has been a major donor to the settlement movement. Moreover, Trump named Jason Greenblatt (who has said that settlements are not an impediment to peace) as his top official dealing with international relations, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has donated to settlements.

Additionally, in a platform revision last summer, the Republican Party removed explicit references to two states. The Republican fundraiser and lobbyist who helped engineer that change, Jeff Ballabon, recently told BuzzFeed News that now, within the GOP, “you have to justify the notion of a two-state solution.”

That might not be true yet, but the sponsors of the resolution that avoids using the term “two-state solution” is a veritable who’s who of the party’s anti-establishment right wing. They have scored impressive wins in recent years, not least of which was backing Trump in the presidential campaign.

While the resolution disapproves of the U.N. resolution and the Obama administration’s abstention, it does not refer to the two-state solution. “Two states” was omitted, said Joni Shockey, a Ross spokeswoman, because the resolution was narrowly focused.

“The resolution is a very narrow response to the U.N.’s vote, specifically condemning President Obama’s instruction to abstain and abandon our closest ally,” Shockey said.

Whereas the Royce-Engel resolution emphasizes backing Israel in its quest for peace, the Ross resolution stresses the alliance, saying that Congress “affirms its commitment to the State of Israel as our loyal friend and strong ally in the Middle East.”

There were no Senate versions of the resolutions as of Jan. 3, but they were expected to be introduced soon.

Leaders of both parties have embraced a two-state outcome since the early 2000s. It was the solution sought by President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000, and although George W. Bush seemed at first skeptical, he embraced the outcome by 2002.

Three rounds of failed peace talks under Clinton, then Bush, then Obama have dampened expectations that the outcome is set to arrive anytime soon.

Whether the “two states is dead” crowd wins the bigger game depends on overcoming a number of formidable obstacles. Congressional leaders, even in this most polarizing of eras, still seek bipartisanship.

Whatever the tensions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama in recent years, congressional Democrats have shown they favor pro-Israel resolutions as long as they endorse two states. And Republican House leaders, such as Royce and the Southern San Joaquin Valley’s Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, will always be willing to tweak language to get the overwhelming majorities that show they are bridge builders.

Additionally, AIPAC’s role in this signifies the importance that the American Jewish establishment still attaches to a two-state outcome.

Then there’s Netanyahu, who still embraces the notion of two states, however much his party and governing coalition have abandoned the policy.

David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Netanyahu may encourage the Trump administration to preserve two states as an outcome by reviving President Bush’s 2004 approach. In an April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush essentially recognized settlement blocs bordering the 1967 lines as likely to remain in Israel, and opposed expansion of settlements beyond the security fence now bisecting the West Bank.

“A reaffirmation of the Bush letter would help establish U.S. policy at a time when a U.S. administration will be preoccupied with other more urgent priorities,” said Makovsky, who was a member of the State Department team that last tried to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace three years ago. “This would be convenient for Netanyahu and Trump and would retain the viability of two states.”


Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.