AIPAC 2017: Haley Shines, but Whither the Two-State Solution?

Every year, anyone who works on United States policy toward Israel, Palestine, or the broader Middle East watches the annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee

US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley

(AIPAC) very closely. At that conference, we expect not only to find out a great deal about where the US and Israeli governments stand at the moment, but also what is likely to occupy the attention of Congress for the coming year regarding Middle East policy.

At last year’s conference, then-candidate Donald Trump’s appearance and warm reception caused one of the deepest divides in the Jewish community in recent memory. AIPAC’s day-after public apology to President Barack Obama for the ovations that Trump’s sharply critical words drew was a landmark event, and was an incident that the powerful lobbying group was hoping to bury this year.

AIPAC wanted their 2017 conference to be one that brought its supporters–who span a considerable political spectrum apart from Middle East policy–back together, and one that also set a clear agenda for the group’s activities for the first year of the Trump Administration. It was not entirely successful in either goal.

Jewish Extremists Attack Protesters

Some of this year’s most dramatic events occurred outside the conference doors. Members of the so-called “Jewish Defense League” (JDL) demonstrated outside the conference. They were there ostensibly as a counter to the groups protesting AIPAC’s support for Israeli policies, especially the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is about to enter its 50th year.

JDL members, however, attacked an unarmed 55-year old Palestinian man and at least one young Jewish protester with the anti-occupation Jewish group IfNotNow.

AIPAC must have been relieved that the incidents garnered little mainstream media coverage. The JDL members, whose coordinator said they were there to “protect Jews in danger of being attacked,” waved flags and wore t-shirts bearing the fist inside a Star of David that is a symbol of the outlawed Israeli political party Kach. That party was expelled and made illegal in Israel due to its outspoken racism, and has since been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, Canada, and, most notably, Israel.

The JDL, while not listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, has been accused, and some of its members convicted, of terrorist acts in the U.S. in the past. As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now tweeted, “If these thugs had been under the flag of an Arab/Muslim FTO (foreign terrorist organization, which Kach is), (it) would have been huge news.”

Still, despite the lack of coverage, there can be little doubt that ongoing actions by IfNotNow, a group of Jewish millennials, signals a deepening breach in the Jewish community around Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. In an attempt to reach out to both AIPAC supporters and opponents of the occupation, Knesset Member Tamar Zandberg, of Israel’s Meretz party, spoke both inside the conference and outside to the protesters, earning her severe criticism from the Israeli right.

Zandberg became one of the few links between the scene outside the conference and what was going on inside.

Where’s the Two-State Solution?

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the conference this year was the scant mention that was made from most of the featured speakers of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Officially, AIPAC still supports the two-state solution, but that support is much weaker than it has been in the past.

In the wake of the presidential election last November, AIPAC pulled mention of the two-state solution from its list of talking points on its web site. The idea does appear elsewhere on the site, but clearly there was a decision taken to de-emphasize it in the wake of the Republican victory in November, after that party had removed support for two states from its party platform. The Republican decision, AIPAC’s response to it, and Donald Trump’s ambiguous statements about the two-state solution have created a great deal of confusion about what the United States’ vision for a solution is. This confusion is only magnified by the fact that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pays only the barest lip service to a two-state solution and most of his governing coalition explicitly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi read out a letter, signed by 191 House members (including two Republicans) and backed by AIPAC’s liberal competitor, J Street, calling on Trump to reaffirm U.S. support for the two-state solution. Pelosi got enough applause to make it clear that this long-time U.S. position still enjoyed significant support among the AIPAC audience. It also set off partisan sniping from the stage, demonstrating that, on this issue like so many others, there is an enormous partisan divide and that, despite AIPAC’s efforts at unity, this divide is reflected in the pro-Israel lobby as well.

With peace negotiations off the table, for the moment at least, AIPAC’s legislative agenda focused on undermining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (the nuclear deal) and a bill that simultaneously attacks the United Nations and extends protections against boycotts of Israel to boycotts of its settlements. These are not new issues for AIPAC. But the focus on these issues, and in support of AIPAC-sponsored bills that were brought to Congress shortly before the conference, indicates that AIPAC is satisfied to leave the Palestinian issue where it is and instead is turning its lobbying effort to ensuring that criticism of Israel will carry a very high price and that the Trump Administration will have more tools to thwart any further cooling of relations between the US and Iran.

AIPAC Loves Nikki Haley

The story that many seemed to focus on coming out of the conference this year was the popularity of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.  Haley benefits from being both a personable conservative and a crusader for the Netanyahu government in the UN. Some observers at AIPAC believed she had taken her first step toward securing a future presidential nomination. That is a vast overstatement, but there is no doubt that Haley was the one person who came out of the conference riding a rising tide.

AIPAC and its supporters had always had a guarded, and sometimes even hostile, view of Samantha Power, Haley’s predecessor under Barack Obama. But Haley has long been clear that her support for Israel is not dimmed one bit by Israel’s ongoing occupation, and this has won her unambiguous AIPAC support. She is in a perfect position in an administration that disdains international cooperation or any other arrangements that put even the slightest limits on U.S. freedom of action. That means that most of Haley’s job is establishing that the United States will do everything in its power to ensure that the United Nations is as marginalized as possible when it comes to Israel.

Nothing pleases the AIPAC crowd more than this. Haley’s unqualified defense of Israel at the UN combines well with her broader image as a “compassionate conservative” to make her AIPAC’s shining star of 2017. Still, it’s worth recalling that her anti-choice stance and support for the flying of the Confederate flag–until the 2015 Charleston Church Shooting made it politically unsustainable—are likely to mean most AIPAC attendees will not be as supportive of her outside that conference hall as they were inside it.

Success or Failure?

In the last analysis, this conference can be viewed as a glass half full or half empty. It certainly was not the divisive moment for the pro-Israel community that last year’s confab was. Yet the schisms that were so apparent in 2016 were shown not to have healed.

On a policy level, AIPAC is drifting and appears unsure of itself. The scene outside the conference was one where the Jewish alt-right extremists of the JDL were clearly closer to AIPAC’s side than the much more moderate protesters who are urging an end to the occupation, but are not advocating any anti-Israel measures. The two-state solution is still in the air, and while the Republicans have withdrawn support for it, no one has actually come out against it, as many in the current Israeli government have done.

Nikki Haley may have emerged as a new hero, but there was very little substance from the other big speakers. Vice President Mike Pence tried to prop up President Trump’s indecisive image by again dropping the idea of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (which he said the President was “seriously considering”) but few put much stock in this after the flip-flopping Trump has already done on the issue. It was also an unspoken reality that Trump’s now-confirmed pick for Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was needlessly divisive. It increased partisanship on the issue of Israel and once more laid bare the splits in the Jewish community on the issue.

AIPAC moves on from its 2017 conference with its influence on Congress still strong, but clearly slipping, as it is torn between pushing a bipartisan agenda and working with the new President. The indecisiveness of the potent lobbying group is hardly surprising, given the lack of any sort of vision coming from either the Israeli Prime Minister or the U.S. President.

That creates an opening for other forces. In order to take advantage of it, however, someone, be it an Israeli leader or a U.S. liberal one, must articulate an alternative vision of the future, one that is achievable even if far off, and one that can inspire supporters of both Israelis and Palestinians. The window for that leader is open, but one cannot say for how long.

Israel and Russia: A Crisis Brews for Trump

On March 16, Israeli planes struck several targets in Syria. Israel said that it had targeted shipments of “advanced weapons” meant for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

These strikes occur from time to time, and there is usually little but fist-waving and statements from Syria in response. This time was different. Assad’s forces launched several missiles at the Israeli jets, none of which found their mark. More importantly, the next day, the new Israeli Ambassador to Russia was summoned by the Russian government for clarification of the incident.

This is significant beyond just the current state of affairs. As Michael Koplow aptly describes over at his blog, this incident is a symptom of an underlying clash of policy between Israel and Russia and there are likely to be more incidents of this nature in the future.

One thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proven to be adept at is balancing Israel on a thin line with other countries. Israel’s relationship with Russia is a good one, and has proven to be generally useful for both sides, but there are built-in tensions and disagreements. One of the biggest of these is their respective attitudes toward Iran, and this difference is bound to play out amidst Russia’s partnership with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s allies, Assad and Hezbollah.

As Koplow puts it, “No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides, the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.”

Yet it is precisely that tension that makes it imperative that Russia and Israel coordinate closely. Israel is willing to let the Syrian conflict play out for now, but they will not allow Hezbollah free rein to upgrade their armaments. Russia, for its part, will not help Israel in this endeavor, but they are willing to turn a blind eye when Israel acts on intelligence it mines, so long as the strikes are limited to the specific convoys.

That uneasy agreement is strained now. Israel is convinced, with good reason, that Iran intends to establish a permanent presence in Syria. That was why Netanyahu broached the subject of the United States recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights last month during his meeting with Donald Trump in Washington.

For Israel, a permanent Iranian role in Syria changes the parameters of the game. They will see this as Iran expanding its presence on Israel’s borders from Southern Lebanon (through Hezbollah) well into Syria. But for Russia, nothing has changed. Vladimir Putin is, as he has always been, intent on maintaining Russia’s regional foothold in Syria. For that, he probably needs Assad and certainly needs Iran.

As analyst Geoffrey Aronson points out, “If until now Putin has been able to contain the contradictions of a policy that accommodates Israel as well as its enemies, in the next phase of the battle this balancing act may not be so easy.”

From both Russia’s and Iran’s points of view, keeping Assad in some degree of power in Syria after the war ends is vital. Israel would probably be willing to see a weakened Assad remain, but not if a permanent Iranian presence is what is needed to prop him up. This creates a brittle situation that would test any leader.

The biggest unknown factor has now become the United States. Part of the Obama Administration’s strategy in its dealing with Iran on the issue of Iranian nuclear capabilities was to open a channel of communication with Tehran. Obama and John Kerry succeeded at that, but the Trump Administration has slammed that door, with the eager help of Congress.

For Trump, Syria is all about the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). He has been quietly escalating US involvement in Syria in a number of places, as Senator Chris Murphy detailed over the weekend. There seems to be no overarching goal to Trump’s actions in Syria other than the pursuits of the moment. That has unpleasant echoes of our early involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Murphy explains. But there may be other complications.

Helping in the fight against ISIS puts US forces squarely alongside those of Russia, Syria, and Iran. That’s consistent with some early statements from Trump about his desire to work with Russia in Syria. If Trump is sincere in his desire to improve relations with Russia—or, on the other hand, if he is as deeply in bed with Putin as many of his detractors believe—this could be a functional strategy. As much as people in the United States despise Assad and Iran, they are more afraid of ISIS than of anyone else. He can survive that politically.

But what happens when this fundamental policy disagreement between Russia and Israel comes to the fore? Given Trump’s early performance in office, it is hard to imagine that he has thought this issue through to that extent. Still, his UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, launched an early volley on this front, saying, “This is very much about a political solution now … and that basically means that Syria can no longer be a safe haven for terrorists. We’ve got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out. We’ve got to make sure that, as we move forward, we’re securing the borders for our allies as well.”

This will be an issue on which Israel must get clarity. Netanyahu is thus far surviving the worst political storms of his tenure in office, but he will not risk having to defend himself against charges that he allowed Iran to establish a permanent foothold on Israel’s very doorstep. Right now, he has no commitment at this stage from the Trump Administration that it would be willing to oppose Russian efforts to keep an Iranian presence in Syria, or, if it would oppose such a presence, how far it would be willing to go to block it.

The seeds for this problem are not only there, they are already growing. The Israel-Russia relationship remains intact, but the summoning of the Israeli ambassador by Russia suggests that tensions are growing. The United States will not be able to stay out of this, even if Trump weren’t deepening our involvement in Syria.

Worse, Trump’s own ambiguity and opaqueness about his policy regarding Israel and where the U.S. stands on the regional issues that surround the Jewish State only adds to the instability.  Netanyahu cannot be sure how far Trump has his back in dealing with Putin. That, in turn, could lead to Netanyahu pushing the decision on Washington through his own actions, a dangerous gamble for everyone concerned.

Trump’s blustering style certainly cannot fill anyone with confidence, not even Netanyahu. Nonetheless, the job is his. There is room to find an accommodation here; Putin does not prioritize Israel’s needs as highly as Washington does, but he still values Israel’s friendship and seems to at least understand Israeli concerns. He will likely be willing to try to find some way for Iran to ensure Assad’s ability to govern at least part of Syria going forward while avoiding a confrontation with Israel.

But the United States will need to help broker this deal and it will be delicate work. Putin might negotiate, but he will not back off his bottom line of maintaining a solid Russian presence in Syria, his primary interest from the start of the upheavals there. Netanyahu, for his part, will need to be convinced that Iranian influence on Israel’s borders is being mitigated by Moscow’s restraint. Trump will need to work to satisfy these competing interests while also working to show he can take on ISIS.

A delicate and difficult task indeed, and neither delicate nor difficult has proven to be Trump’s forte.

UN Removes Report Accusing Israel of The Crime Of Apartheid From Its Web Site

On Friday, United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres asked a UN agency to remove a report from its web site that accused Israel of the crime of apartheid. The report has since been removed from the site, although the executive summary is still there. Rima Khalaf, the head of the agency (the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA)) resigned in protest.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

The report is certainly explosive. Written by Virginia Tilley and Richard Falk, two scholars who are strong supporters of a single, democratic state in all of Mandatory Palestine (and are generally also seen as anti-Zionist, a label I don’t know if either embraces, but which I doubt would particularly bother either of them), it basically makes the case that not only the occupation, but Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state is incompatible with international law and creates an apartheid regime. No doubt, the Secretary-General, knowing the already hostile environment the UN faces on Capitol Hill and in the White House, did not relish the idea of giving such an enormous boost to that hostility which is already threatening to cut off a major source of UN funding.

I am not going to offer an analysis of the report here. One reason is that while I have read through it, I need to examine it more thoroughly. But I can say a few things about the report.

  • I clearly do not agree with many of the report’s conclusions and recommendations, and have issues with some of the methodology as well.
  • That being said, the report makes more than a few points that I find either valid or, at the very least, troubling enough that a serious discussion about them is not only warranted, but crucial.
  • Disagreeing with the report’s conclusions, methodology, or evidence is not a valid reason to simply mute the report.
  • The question of whether any state can be both democratic and also a state of only one ethnic/religious/racial group of people is one that bears on a great many conflicts in the world today, as well as on the very definition of democracy. On that basis alone, it needs to be discussed. In the specific case of Israel, it has obvious and practical ramifications. For those who believe Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state, it must be acknowledged that those two things must necessarily exist in tension. As such, we cannot avoid either an open discussion to figure out how a Jewish democracy works or an open and civilized debate with those who believe it is not possible for state to be both Jewish and democratic.

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What Linda Sarsour Said

Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour has been in the spotlight quite a bit in recent Linda_Sarsour_on_19_May_2016.jpegweeks. Her role in organizing the anti-Trump Women’s March, which drew larger crowds than Donald Trump’s inauguration and mightily rankled the incoming president, put her name on the map in a way it had not been before. One of the first ways she used her prominence was to start a Muslim campaign to raise funds to repair a Jewish cemetery in Missouri that had been vandalized. She and her allies had a goal of $20,000 and ended up raising over $160,000.

But some in the Jewish community want to hear nothing more from Sarsour. You see, she is a supporter of the tactic of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) and believes that the best solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is a single democratic state in all of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Many consider this stance to be conclusive proof that she is not just a supporter of the Palestinian cause but an extreme anti-Zionist and even an anti-Semite.

I happen to disagree with Linda Sarsour on these points. Although I very strongly support boycotting products and services that come from Israel’s settlements, I believe that cultural, academic, and broad boycotts of Israel as a whole are a counter-productive and inappropriate tactic. I also believe (and have written extensively about why) that a one-state reality will be no solution, although the two-state vision needs to be significantly revised from its Oslo form.

Some Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause have called me a “Zionist” in the most pejorative sense of that word for my views. (I identify as neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist. I think nationalism of all kinds is sometimes useful but ultimately destructive, but I also believe the Jewish people have as much right to self-determination as any other people, including the Palestinians). Similarly, Sarsour’s views have drawn labels to her that simply don’t fit either her words or her actions.

Enter The Nation

Most recently, and sadly, The Nation inadvertently helped reinforce this narrow-minded view of Sarsour’s stances.

On March 13, the long-running left-wing US magazine published an interview with Linda Sarsour by Collier Myerson. The headline of the interview was, “ Can You Be a Zionist Feminist? Linda Sarsour Says No.” The trouble is, at least in the printed interview, Sarsour didn’t say that.

In the interview, Sarsour speaks of women’s suffering under the occupation. She talks about “right-wing Zionists” and of how groups and individuals have stifled debate on the issue here in the US. She sums up her argument this way:

It just doesn’t make any sense for someone to say, “Is there room for people who support the state of Israel and do not criticize it in the movement?” There can’t be in feminism. You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it.

Why, if Sarsour intended to exclude anyone who holds pro-Israel views—i.e., anyone who might be described as a Zionist—did she add the clause about not criticizing Israel? It’s very clear, from this and from the entire interview, that Sarsour said that anyone who cannot stand up against the oppression of Palestinian women was too hypocritical to be called a feminist.

Whether one supports or criticizes Sarsour, it’s crucial that we deal with what she actually said. The Nation did a disservice to Sarsour and to the larger debate over the Israeli occupation in the United States by distorting Sarsour’s words for a provocative headline. The mistake got magnified when many of Sarsour’s allies and supporters, as well as her critics, tweeted the article directly, meaning the tweet consisted entirely of the headline, perhaps with a brief editorial comment attached.

The result is that Sarsour became the focus of a simplistic debate about whether one can be a Zionist and a feminist at the same time. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency characterized Sarsour’s stance as: “Sarsour said those who identify as Zionist cannot be feminist because they are ignoring the rights of Palestinian women,” despite then quoting the very same paragraph I used above, where Sarsour clearly delineates what she is objecting and, crucially, never says she is referring to anyone who might self-identify as Zionist.

I cannot say where Sarsour comes down on the question of whether an anti-occupation Zionist can also be a feminist. I think the answer is obviously yes, but it’s going to depend on how you’re defining the term “Zionist.” But if we ask whether one can be a feminist while defending Israel’s occupation, its policy of withholding basic rights from Palestinians, its siege on Gaza, and its creeping annexation of the West Bank, that is a different and challenging question.

From the earliest days of the women’s liberation movement, feminism has struggled with a tension between itself and other social justice movements. The domination of the movement by white women has been a vexing problem, and the insufficient attention to the particular problems women of color face has been discussed and worked on for years. The intersection of feminism with homophobia, Islamophobia, class, and pretty much any other form of social inequity is unavoidable because women are present in every category and class of humanity.

That is the issue that Sarsour raised in her interview. She wondered how a feminist could worry about the lack of access to proper medical care for a woman in a rural US area, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or anywhere else, but not in Palestine. It’s a valid question, and one that has been raised any time feminism intersects with another form of oppression. Yet, when the question is raised by a Palestinian woman about Palestinians it becomes a toxic issue.

That toxicity was, sadly, raised to a much higher level by The Nation’s clumsy headline writing. Sarsour was already being attacked for her support of BDS and her advocacy of a single-state solution. Yet, it’s worth asking why, with the current Israeli government working every day to thwart a two-state solution and with that government also banning people from entry and even detaining its own citizens based on nothing other than their political views, only the Palestinian one-stater is deemed to be such a threat.

Zionism and Feminism

Sarsour’s interview was a response to an op-ed in The New York Times by Emily Shire. Shire finds it problematic that the women’s march included a plank that called for the “de-colonization of Palestine.” She felt that the movement was saying that support for BDS was almost a requirement.

Does Linda Sarsour believe that Shire, who describes herself as “critical of certain Israeli government policies… (but) a Zionist because I support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” could be a feminist if her opposition to those Israeli policies meant that she opposed the occupation and supported equal rights and freedom for Palestinians. I don’t know if that’s an accurate depiction of Shire’s views, but there are many such people, Jewish and otherwise, men, women and intersex, all over the world. I do know that Sarsour did not answer that question in her interview, yet both supporters of Israeli policies and supporters of Palestinian rights have seized on a headline to debate what Sarsour did not say.

Sarsour is too important a figure right now to allow this sort of nonsense to get in her way. Progressives need to be smarter than this. A Palestinian-American woman has led the way in opposing the most dangerous president the United States has ever elected, at a time when right-wing, reactionary forces have control over all the branches of the US government. She has done this also at a time when the future for Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Israel, as well as in refugee camps in surrounding countries looks as bleak as it ever has.

Right now, we need Linda Sarsour. We don’t have to agree with her on everything. I don’t. But her skill and wisdom as a leader, her ability to raise a wide range of important issues must be valued by progressives because they open up discussion, not stifled because we might not agree with every one of her views. Sarsour is an American leader. She is also an uncompromising Palestinian Muslim woman whose views need to be heard and discussed fairly and rationally, based on what she actually says, not on a headline. If progressives, and, yes, feminists, can’t do that much, how can we expect anyone else to?

The Middle East Vision of Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders is no stranger to igniting fiery passions with his views and speeches. But he is better known for doing so on economic and even social issues than on foreign policy. At the bernie-at-j-streetannual conference of the dovish, pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, however, Sanders gave a speech that can and should become the impetus for a new policy discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the race for the Democratic nomination last year, Sanders exploded myths by calling forcefully for Palestinian rights while also strongly affirming Israel’s right to exist and need for security. When, in the wake of those remarks, the editorial board of the New York Daily News asked him more detailed questions, it was clear that he had not given enough study, time, or thought to the matter.

That has changed, and Sanders’ rousing speech at the J Street conference on Monday demonstrated a different, more nuanced, but no less powerful stance. Sanders advocated strongly for an approach that treats Palestinian and Israeli needs for security, hope, and justice equally.

Although demonstrating a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the politics that surrounds it, Sanders did not diminish his sense of moral outrage at the denial of basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians and the ongoing threats Israelis continue to face.

The key part of his speech—the bit that, one hopes, will be taken as inspiration by supporters of Israelis and Palestinians everywhere—came after Sanders relayed his personal attachment to Israel. After reminding the crowd that he had lived for several months on a kibbutz in the early 1960s, Sanders said, “I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution, and particularly after the horror of the Holocaust.”

For some, that point is too often forgotten, buried under the weight of decades of occupation, dispossession, and the increasing influence of nationalism on democratic values in Israel. That said, however, Sanders delivered what was perhaps the single most important message of the entire conference:

But as you all know, there was another side to the story of Israel’s creation, a more painful side. Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees. To acknowledge this painful historical fact does not “delegitimize” Israel, any more than acknowledging the Trail of Tears delegitimizes the United States of America.

Those words cut to the very core of the political issues that make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so vexing. More importantly, they also shine a light on the path forward.

Shared Values

Sanders’ formulation challenged the dueling narratives of the two sides, the emotionally, historically, and politically charged claims of Israelis and Palestinians alike, and, perhaps most importantly, the idea of a zero-sum equation where any Palestinian gain must mean an Israeli loss, and vice versa.

At times, the comparison of the Zionist emigration to Palestine and the subsequent displacement of most of the inhabitants living there to the genocide of Native Americans has indeed been used to paint Israel’s creation as a criminal event. But Sanders eloquently turns that upside down.

It is still a hard reality, but now it addresses a core Israeli fear: that any admission of culpability by Israel for the Palestinians’ displacement would nullify Israel’s moral basis for its existence. Instead, Sanders bases the moral case for Israel on the historical experience of the Jewish people, while not excusing the fact that the Jewish state’s creation resulted in a catastrophe for the Palestinians. If we accept that dual narrative, we have the basis to move forward on a resolution of the conflict that treats the rights and claims of both peoples equally.

Israelis and Palestinians may each feel that their own narrative is more accurate, that their own claims are more just. That is to be expected. But the United States, and any other outside party must, as a necessary condition of involvement in resolving the conflict, treat the national, civil, human, collective, and individual rights of all Palestinians and Israelis equally. This has not been the case, for the United States or for most other countries with a stake in the conflict.

A New Vision

Sanders stayed away from specific policies beyond a vague reference to a two-state solution to the conflict, and this was another example of clever thinking on his part. The two-state solution remains the only diplomatic game in town, and it continues to be the preferred option of many, even some who no longer believe it can be achieved.

But the process that has been the basis for the two-state solution since 1993 was ill-conceived. Moreover, it would be foolish to think that, given the political, social and physical changes that have affected the formulas for dealing with every issue—settlements, borders, Jerusalem, water, security, refugees, Gaza, et al—the same old ideas can simply be fitted onto present day realities.

Since the Oslo Accords were enacted, time has worked against the two-state solution. But it is a mistake to measure that effect in terms of the life of the two-state solution, as has so often been done. Rather it should be measured in terms of the cost: the longer Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, spreads its control over Jerusalem, and maintains a siege on the Gaza Strip, the higher the political, social, and financial costs to resolve these issues becomes.

What is needed now is new thinking on how to realize the national aspirations for independence, security, and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians. The notion that Yitzhak Rabin sold to the Israeli people a quarter of a century ago of complete separation (“Us here, them there,” said Rabin) was always a difficult one to imagine. How was Israel to find real security if a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza did not cooperate very intimately with the Jewish state? How was a fledgling Palestinian state going to grow economically, and even function sensibly, without close cooperation and, yes, support from its neighbor, the strongest and most economically and politically stable country in the region?

These essential questions were never answered in all the years of a frustrating peace process. Instead, the process was easily slowed or even halted by forces on both sides that thought only of their own needs, treated the claims of the other as ephemeral, and saw the very humanity of their antagonists as lesser.

Sanders framed the way forward very well:

It’s often said that the US-Israel relationship is based on ‘shared values.’ I think this is correct, but then we also have to ask: What do we mean by this? What values are we talking about?

We believe in democracy. We believe in equality. We believe in pluralism. We are strongly opposed to xenophobia. We respect and we will protect the rights of minorities. These are values that are shared by progressives in this country and across the globe. These values are based upon the very simple notion that we share a common humanity. Whether we are Israelis or Palestinians or Americans, whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims, or of another religion, we all want our children to grow up healthy, to have a good education, have decent jobs, drink clean water and breathe clean air, and to live in peace.

That is the basis for new thinking about the two-state solution. An Israel and a Palestine fulfilling the national ambitions of each of their peoples in democratic, national homelands that work closely together. It need not be a formal federation, but simply a peace that explicitly agrees to and spells out what should be obvious: Israelis and Palestinians need each other, and their future is much brighter together than apart.

That vision goes farther than the one Sanders laid out. But it is the logical alternative to abandoning the two states idea, which no one has seemed eager to do, or continuing the same bloody cycle that has characterized the years of the Oslo “peace process.”

The actual policies and terms of an agreement would have to be hammered out again. But then, aren’t talks without pre-conditions exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been demanding? Imagine if the principles Sanders framed were the ones the United States, along with the Arab League and US partners in the Quartet, were using?

Ultimately, those principles, however lofty they may sound, are indispensable to any solution that would be just and durable. As Sanders also said, “To oppose the policies of a right-wing government in Israel does not make one anti-Israel or an anti-Semite. We can oppose the policies of President Trump without being anti-American. We can oppose the policies of Netanyahu without being anti-Israel. We can oppose the policies of Islamic extremism without being anti-Muslim.”

And progressive principles can serve as the bedrock of a lasting solution to this conflict. One of Oslo’s fatal flaws was its over-reliance on terms of security and authority and its lack of emphasis on rights and democracy. The latter must come first. If it does, issues of security, authority, land, Jerusalem and other practical matters become much easier to deal with.