Israel’s big question is on the table

And John Kerry’s peace plan will force Israel to find an answer

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If Secretary of State John Kerry brings his Middle East peace mission to a head and presents the Palestinians and Israelis with a clear framework for an agreement, Israel and the Jewish people will face one of the most critical choices in their history. And when they do, all hell could break loose in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not without reason, is asking the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people,” confirming that if Israel cedes them a state in the West Bank, there will be two states for two peoples. But, for Netanyahu to get an answer to that question, he will have to give an answer to a question Israelis have been wrestling with ever since the 1967 war reconnected them with the heartland of ancient Israel in the West Bank. And that is:

“What is the nation state of the Jewish people?”

Mr. Kerry, by steadily making the answer to that question unavoidable, has set the Israeli political system into a roiling debate, with some ministers shrilly attacking Mr. Kerry and slamming Mr. Netanyahu for even putting the question on the table — as if the status quo were sustainable and hunky-dory.

For instance, Mr. Kerry recently observed that, if the peace talks fail, “there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that’s been building up [against Israel]. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things.”

Some Israeli ministers and American Jewish leaders blasted Mr. Kerry for what they said was his trying to use the BDS movement — “boycotts, divestment and sanctions” — as a club to pressure Israel into making more concessions.

I strongly disagree. Secretary Kerry and President Barack Obama are trying to build Israelis a secure off-ramp from the highway they’re hurtling down in the West Bank that ends only in some really bad places for Israel and the Jewish people.

As Gidi Grinstein, the founder of the Reut Institute, a nonprofit that works on the thorniest problems of Israeli society, puts it: “We are in a critical moment in our history — far more significant than many realize.” Ever since 1936, “the Zionist movement has sought to establish a sovereign Jewish and democratic majority in Zion, and, therefore, eventually accepted the principle of two states for two peoples: a Jewish state and an Arab state.” Although there is a powerful settler movement in Israel that would like to absorb the West Bank today, the state of Israel has continued to tell the world and the Jewish people that, under the right security conditions, it would cede control of that occupied territory and its 2.5 million Palestinians to forge a two-state deal.

If Mr. Kerry’s mission fails, he will be tacitly or explicitly declaring that this two-state solution is no longer a viable option and “that would plunge Israel into a totally different paradigm,” said Mr. Grinstein. It would force Israel onto one of three bad paths: either a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank or annexation and granting the Palestinians there citizenship, making Israel a binational state. Or Israel by default could become an apartheid-like state in permanent control over 2.5 million Palestinians. There are no other options.

What these three options have in common, noted Mr. Grinstein, is that they would lead to a “massive eruption of the BDS movement” and “the BDS movement at heart is not about Israel’s policies but Israel’s existence: They want to see Israel disappear. What is keeping the BDS movement contained is that we’re still in the paradigm of the two-state solution.” If that paradigm goes, he believes, the BDS movement will launch with new momentum and the line between it and those around the world who are truly just critical of Israel’s West Bank occupation will get blurred.

Furthermore, being the “nation state of the Jewish people” means that the values of Israel cannot be sharply divergent from the values of the Jewish diaspora (the vast majority of American Jews vote liberal) or from the values of America — Israel’s only true ally. Added Mr. Grinstein: “If that happens, the relationship between Israel and America and American Jewry will inevitably become polarized.”

To avoid that, no one expects Israel to concede to whatever Palestinians demand or to accept insecure borders or to give Palestinians a free pass on their excesses. Israel should bargain hard and protect its interests.

“But Israel has to be seen as credibly committed to ending its control over the Palestinians in the West Bank,” concluded Mr. Grinstein, otherwise it won’t just have a problem with BDS, but eventually with the United States and a growing segment of American Jews — “turning Israel from a force of unity for Jews to a force of disunity.”

And so, responding to the Kerry plan, when it comes, is about something very deep: What is the nation state of the Jewish people — and how will Jews abroad and Israel’s closest ally relate to it in the future?

Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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