Israeli think tank ponders bilateral relations

After President Barack Obama’s March 19 statement that he was going to “reassess” policy options following the pre-election disavowal of a two-state solution by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) began convening a comprehensive task force to chart the future of U.S.-Israel relations. 

“I believe Obama intends to be engaged until the last days of 2017,” said David Weinberg, director of public affairs at BESA. “He’s ideologically committed to a two-state solution and I don’t agree with those who take his recent statements that he’s walking away from pushing for it or has thrown his hands up at face value.” Bar-Ilan University has assembled a team of Israeli and American experts, mostly supportive of Netanyahu and critical of Obama, who are studying the areas of convergence and divergence going forward.

“We pride ourselves on our ability to think ahead with strategic prescience,” Weinberg told the Journal, citing the center’s early alarm bells over Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the implications of intensified Chinese engagement with the Middle East.

“The post-Obama era is still a ways off, but it’s not too far ahead, and we are trying to develop alternatives to the two-state solution,” Weinberg explained.

With a White House visibly disappointed in the Israel’s election result, and Jerusalem despondent over the Iran nuclear framework, the two countries might be well advised to find a couple’s counselor.

“I think the president is going to bang his head against the wall — and ours. There will be friction for months to come,” Weinberg said.

“Netanyahu’s speech in Congress raised serious issues about the negotiations with Iran,” added Bar-Ilan professor Eytan Gilboa. “It also has further alienated the White House, broken the traditional bi-partisan approach to Israel, divided the American Jewish community, weakened AIPAC, which relies on both, and compromised the ability of the current Israeli ambassador in Washington to effectively accomplish his duties.”

Sunni Israel

“I jokingly say that Israel is the first Sunni state to be Jewish or the first Jewish state to be Sunni,” David Makovsky said at the recent BESA Roundtable. “There is a convergence on Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, on ISIS, some might say on Turkey — some might say on criticizing the United States.

“It was remarkable to me that after 51 days, no matter what the television pictures were on Al-Jazeera, for the first time the Sunni governments saw Hamas through the prism of Israel — as a terror entity, and the Egyptian government refers to it as such,” Makovsky said.

While the White House may be demonstrating realpolitik conceding an Iranian role in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Israel’s views on the matter overlap significantly with Hashemite Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are ultimately more afraid of Tehran than ISIS.

“In addition to keeping Iran at a reasonable remove form nuclear weapons status, the Obama administration seems to have an additional goal in mind: to bring Iran on board efforts to stabilize the Middle East,” added Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser. “For this, Obama is willing to pay a significant price in terms of the legitimization of Iran’s central role in the region.”

Participants at the roundtable concurred with the view that the White House neglected the importance of the Sunni-Shia split in the formation of its nuclear policy.

“Obama believed in a fallacy that our dispute with the Palestinians would stop Sunni Arab leaders from publicly objecting to a deal with Iran,” said Shmuel Sandler, a professor and Mideast policy expert. “Wikileaks divulged that Sunni Arab leaders urged the Americans to keep nuclear weapons from Iran regardless of the Palestinian issue.

“The President got in the way between the convergence between the Gulf Arabs and us. Look at how he went to Turkey and Qatar instead of working with the Egyptians as mediators during the conflict last summer in Gaza,” Sandler said.

The Christianity factor

“The fundamental meaning of Israel for America remains very deep but particularly for religious Christians,” said American diplomat Elliott Abrams at the May 12 BESA Roundtable.

“The rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States is important and one of the interesting aspects of this is the percentage of Hispanics who are leaving the Catholic Church and becoming Evangelical Protestants.

“When they do, the likelihood of their becoming more supportive of Israel increases, as it does for all Evangelicals.”

Four months from now, Pope Francis will address Congress. Republicans were hoping he’d have their back on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, but this week the Vatican made clear its intention to recognize a Palestinian state.

“It’s interesting how the Vatican has gotten so political, when ultimately the Vatican ought to be working to lead people to Jesus Christ and salvation,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.).

Duncan and other “Christian Zionists” are being reminded that the Catholic Church nurtures different, and arguably deeper ties to the Holy Land than evangelical denominations and is less receptive to Israeli arguments that the Palestinians can’t pull off statehood.

With data showing that American Catholic voters and lawmakers are marginally more “balanced” in their view of the conflict, Israeli policy experts know their lobbying efforts increasingly will have to factor in denominational affiliations among U.S. Christians.

But Jonathan Rynhold, another BESA participant, thinks the denominational factor might be overstated.

“The thing about American Catholics is they are culturally Protestant when it comes to Israel,” he said. “Over a third of them believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people in the Bible has relevance to Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish homeland today. That is not in line with Catholic doctrine, which says the Bible has no significance to the State of Israel.

“So on average, while they are less sympathetic to Israel than American Protestants, they are still very sympathetic by any standard and much more supportive than European Catholics,” said Rynhold, whose extensive findings on U.S. Christians and the Middle East are detailed in his book, “The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture,” published last month by Cambridge University Press.

Obama’s Mideast diplomacy had some promising moments according to David Makovsky, who took a year’s leave of absence from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy to join the team Martin Indyk assembled to support the John Kerry initiative.

“There was some good news but that good news was never told to the public’s both sides. Of course, for some of them, it wouldn’t have been good news,” Makovsky said.

“The Palestinians were more flexible on the refugee issue than I would say 99 percent of Israelis would believe, and the Israelis were in the ZOPA, our shorthand for zone of a possible agreement in terms of territory.”

Makovsky said neither Netanyahu nor Mahmoud Abbas wanted to raise expectations by signaling the progress that was made during the Kerry talks.

“Another fact that didn’t help much is the two sides did things that were not helpful,” Makovsky said.

BESA’s “security maven,” retired Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror rejects the notion that the American team was able to advance a workable two-state deal.

“The professional judgment of what Gen. [John] Allen offered is that it was not enough for the security of Israel. It could be good for American purposes, but for Israel it depended too much on foreign forces and technology, which is something Israel can not accept,” Amidror told the Jewish Journal.

Unlike the cluster of “technocrat” former generals including retired Maj. Gen. Amnon Reshef and former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who are members of the two-state advocacy group Commanders for Israel’s Security, Amidror says Israel must block statehood for the West Bank and Gaza so long as Palestinian negotiators insist on an Israeli withdraw from the Jordan valley.

“Abu Mazen [Abbas] has shown no flexibility over the past 10 years,” Amidror said. “Yes, he is against violence and against using terror, but when it comes to our security requirements, he hasn’t moved one step.”

Credibility questioned

It was in 2009 at the BESA Center where Netanyahu first suggested a willingness to see the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and that is the same venue where in 2013 the Prime Minister began to dial back, saying the Palestinians simply don’t want Jews to live anywhere in Israel.

On the eve of the March Knesset elections, he issued a complete reversal of the 2009 declaration, telling American business magnate Sheldon Adelson’s pro-settler website, NRG, that “anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamists’ attacks against Israel.”

But even Abrams, who has slammed Obama for bashing Netanyahu, is concerned that Israel is losing credibility in the “two-states” discussion.

“The problem will arise when people think Israel isn’t trying,” Abrams told the BESA forum. “Even if they kind of recognize that the Palestinians don’t want to say yes, and there is no possibility of a peace agreement.

“Israel gains from appearing to try — because the alternative to that is an Israeli position that essentially says there is going to be another 50 to 60 years of occupation; we are going to rule the Palestinians for another couple of generations, and there is no alternative to that.

“That may be true. That may be the way it turns out. But it is harmful to Israel not just internationally but even in the United States to appear to be relaxing into that position and say that is the way it is, grow up.”

Is a two-state solution still possible?

This story originally appeared on

A trumpeter playing sorrowful songs outside of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art seemed to symbolize the melancholy many of the proponents of the two-state solution of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel feel these days.

Former Israeli Intelligence Chief Yuval Diskin was speaking at a conference on the roadmap for a two-state solution called the Geneva Accord. He told an overflow crowd at the museum, that dividing the land is still feasible.

“I know that the risks are great and that our success is not guaranteed. It is a deep seated issue, and much blood has been spilled,” Diskin said. “There are economic, mental and cultural gaps between the two sides. There are many, many years of disappointment. But I still believe that a true leadership, with a true vision and path can push this forward so that we can provide hope for a new momentum in the Palestinian and the Israeli streets.”

The Geneva Accord, which calls for a Palestinian state in virtually all of the land that Israel acquired in 1967, was crafted in the midst of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005. Palestinians killed 1000 Israelis, mostly civilians, and Israeli soldiers killed 3000 Palestinians during violent clashes.

The Accord, released ten years ago, was meant to flesh out many of the longstanding issues between the Israelis and Palestinians in order to create an agreement independent of the political process.

Secretary of the State John Kerry is in the Middle East for the eighth time since August trying to push Israelis and Palestinians toward a deal. This time, he has brought a security plan to boost Israeli confidence after a potential withdrawal from much of the West Bank.

Some international observers believe time is running out for a two-state solution.

“This is an opportunity to capitalize on the promise of regaining peace,” said Robert Serry, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process. “I also feel that the international community is becoming increasingly impatient. That is why we stand to lose much if the talks fail again. We cannot afford to remain complacent.”

Diskin said Israel is making a mistake by focusing on Iran, rather than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I am here because I believe that the consequence of this conflict left unresolved is much more existential than the Iranian nuclear threat,” Yuval Diskin said to a thunderous round of applause. “I know that this is not popular to say, especially these days, but I believe it with all of my heart. I believe that we must reach a resolution now before we go beyond a point to reach an agreement.”

Some of the biggest roadblocks to a two-state solution continue to be the same issues that have been sticking points for the past 20 years –the future of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

“These are very heavy decisions to make. These are decisions that touch upon the essence of both Judaism and Palestinian identity. For Israel to have Jerusalem, this is our Zionist ideal,” Professor Shmuel Sandler, a professor of political science and a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Institute at Bar Ilan University (BESA) told The Media Line.

Israeli and Palestinian officials each blame the other for the lack of progress toward a two-state solution.

“If the right position is taken, of course it is feasible. But the situation on the ground shows that the Israelis do not want there to be an agreement,” Xavier Abu Eid, an advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) told The Media Line. “The culture of impunity that Israel has continued allows it to violate international law without paying any price for its actions.”

The ongoing split between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the Islamist movement which controls Gaza, is also an obstacle.

“The drift away from the two-state solution politics in Israel and Palestine is one of the problems,” Ghassan al-Khatib, a former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority told The Media Line. “Every new election in Israel is bringing more right-wing politics into power. Public opinion is moving away from the two-state solution in Israel. The political reality within Palestine is no less of a problem. The split between Fatah and Hamas and the fact that the last election was won by Hamas is a problem.”

The current round of negotiations began in July after a five-year freeze. Secretary Kerry has made it clear that he is going to push both sides hard for a deal.

“I think Secretary Kerry has been very adamant and has been trying his best in order to reach peace between Israel and Palestine. And we definitely do appreciate his commitment for peace,” Abu Eid said. “I think that our side is very serious with him. We have gone along with everything we have committed to with Secretary Kerry. The other side has continued to undermine everything that Secretary Kerry has said.”

Recent polls have also shown that while both populations want a resolution to the conflict, neither side believes that the revived negotiations will end successfully.

“To recognize the right of Israel to exist, that’s the main obstacle. They have to cross a Rubicon,” professor emeritus Avraham Diskin (no relation to Yuval Diskin) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line. “Israel is not a legitimate entity for most of the Arab world, most of the Muslim world. So to sign an agreement recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (is difficult).”

Yet many on both sides say there is no alternative to a two-state solution, and the question is not if it will be implemented, but only when.