In 2009, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami promised to be a “blocking back” if President Barack Obama clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends in Congress over the creation of a Palestinian state.
Six years after Ben-Ami made that promise, there is no hope for a Palestinian state — and no presidential initiative for a two-state solution to back up. Members of J Street, a U.S.-based liberal pro-Israel group, hoped that Netanyahu would lose his throne to Issac Herzog, the head of the Labor Party, in the March 17 election. Instead, Netanyahu, the “King of Israel” and a staunch opponent of a Palestinian state, has consolidated his power with a crushing win in the Israeli election. His Likud party exceeded expectations, capturing 29 Knesset seats.
Netanyahu’s decisive victory is a clarifying moment. J Street and other liberal Zionist groups in the U.S. and Israel must come to terms with the dissolution of their raison d’être, the creation of a Palestinian state and the end of the Israeli occupation. Netanyahu has institutionalized a dystopian, unequal one-state reality in historic Palestine in which Israelis continue to dominate the lives of Palestinians, who cannot move freely through the West Bank or get out of the Gaza Strip.
If J Street wants to stay relevant, it should think about shifting its message to one that reflects this reality. But that’s not what it is doing.
In a postelection statement Ben-Ami said J Street would continue to stand “for an end to occupation, for a two-state solution and for an Israel that is committed to its core democratic principles and Jewish values.” It’s a nice sentiment but one that is out of touch with the facts on the ground, as Netanyahu’s final days of campaigning revealed.
On March 16, the day before the election, Netanyahu told an Israeli newspaper that “whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.” The paper asked him if he meant a Palestinian state would not be established. “Indeed,” he responded.
Later that day, he told Israelis that if they re-elected him, he would continue to build settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. (All settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which house an estimated 500,000 Israelis, violate international law.)
Even more telling than Netanyahu’s words was the setting of his remarks. He traveled to Har Homa, a settlement near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem that he helped establish when he was in power in 1997. (Israel considers Har Homa part of Jerusalem — a reflection of Israel’s unilateral move in 1967 to expand the boundaries of the holy city to increase its Jewish population and take control of areas for the later expansion of settlements.) Har Homa is strategically important for the Israeli settler movement because it is a big part of a string of settlements that blocks the contiguity of Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, the presumed capital of a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu explained the value of Har Homa in his March 16 speech by calling the settlement “a way of stopping Bethlehem from moving toward Jerusalem” that “stops the continuation of the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu’s bluntness in explaining why he helped build Har Homa was new, but his values have always been clear. He has always promised to hold on to settlements that make it impossible for a Palestinian state to be created. In 2010, he said, “Ariel, the capital of Samaria [the northern West Bank], will be an integral, inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future arrangement.” Ariel juts deep into the West Bank and blocks a connection between the Palestinian town of Salfit and a group of villages to the north.
Since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, he has presided over more settlement expansion. Earlier this year, the anti-settlement group Peace Now released a report concluding that Netanyahu set a 10-year record for issuing settlement tenders for future construction.
The world must face reality: Netanyahu is not going to uproot these settlements. He’s going to expand them, spitting in the face of the U.S. and other countries that say they want to see a Palestinian state and an end to conflict. This expansion will only entrench the one-state solution that he presides over — a state encompassing both Israel and the occupied territories, where only Israelis have political rights.
Liberal pro-Israel groups such as J Street don’t seem to be adjusting well to this newly confirmed reality. They are clinging to a hope that the U.S. can broker a two-state solution, a hope that is merely an illusion as long as Netanyahu remains in office. Ben-Ami should face up to the truth, call for real pressure on Israel and join the struggle for equal rights in a single state encompassing Israel and the Palestinian territories.