1. Why the Jewish groups’ anti-annexation letter is a big deal
Last Friday, as election results in Israel became clear and as final touches were being put on the U.S. Middle East peace plan, a.k.a. “the deal of the century,” a group of Jewish organizations sent a letter to President Trump essentially asking him to rein in Israel’s re-elected prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We respectfully request,” the letter to Trump states, “that you declare that the United States will not support any Israeli proposal to annex the West Bank, in whole or in part.”
The letter expresses strong support for the two-state solution, even if it is not achievable under current circumstances, and paints the idea of annexation, floated by Netanyahu on the eve of Israel’s elections, as one that “could destroy any chance of a negotiated two-state solution between the parties.”
Statements by Jewish groups urging a negotiated peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians are nothing new. Nor are policy papers objecting to a unilateral Israeli move of declaring its sovereignty over the entire West Bank or over the Jewish settlements within the area. What is noteworthy are both the letter’s signatories and its addressee. Alongside the dovish Israel Policy Forum and Ameinu, the letter is signed by the Anti-Defamation League and, more importantly, by the Reform and Conservative movements, alongside their rabbinical branches. True, all trend liberal, but with groups representing an estimated 1.5 million Jewish American members, this is not your run of the mill statement aimed more at venting than at changing policy.
And then there’s the fact that this is not simply a joint statement. It is addressed to the president of the United States. Trump, to be sure, did not and will not read the letter, nor will he lose any sleep over a petition from a group of Jewish organizations. But for the Jewish community, the idea of reaching out to the American president with a request to use his power in order to block a move by the Israeli prime minister is, to say the least, unusual. Remember when J Street appeared on the Jewish communal scene and argued that being pro-Israel can include advocating for American policies that Israel disagrees with? This is exactly the same, but on a much larger scale.
2. Liberal Jews are marking their red lines early on
Why issue this letter now? Timing is important. Coalition negotiations in Israel are about to kick off and there’s a window of several weeks before a new Likud-led government is sworn in. Once it is, a new Netanyahu policy, which could include West Bank annexation, could be put in place immediately. It’s easier for Jewish American activists to advocate against a policy that’s being discussed than one that has already been decided upon. If and when annexation rolls in, either as a unilateral Israeli move or with the blessing of the Trump administration, Jewish Americans, or at least a big chunk of them, will be on the record opposing the move. With very little influence over the decision-making process in Israel and with just as little impact on the policies of the Trump administration, standing up loud and early on against the idea of annexation won’t alter the march of history, but it will allow liberal Jewish-Americans to have their own “I warned you about this” moment, if and when things go bad.
3. Preparing for a peace plan rollout
The White House, in the meantime, is communicating primarily with right-of-center Jewish groups and with Orthodox organizations and activists. With Jared Kushner’s peace plan scheduled to be introduced within weeks, the White House is asking Jewish Americans to give peace a chance, or at least give a chance to the “deal of the century” even though some (on the center and left) won’t like the fact it doesn’t endorse a two-state solution, and others (on the right) might object to concessions Israel will have to make in regards to expansion of settlements. Support of conservative and hawkish Jews for the plan is more important than getting peacenik liberals on board. At the end of the day, Trump has a domestic audience to win over and having Jewish activists on the right vouch for the president’s peace plan can go a long way in convincing Christian evangelical voters that the plan is kosher.
4. Pro-Israel Jewish lawmakers also weigh in
Also voicing their opposition last Friday to an Israeli annexation of the West Bank were a slate of four Democratic members of Congress: Nita Lowey, Eliot Engel, Ted Deutch and Brad Schneider. All are Jewish, all are deeply involved in Middle East issues, and all strongly identity as pro-Israel. Not to mention the fact that all four lawmakers are regulars at almost every AIPAC gathering. Their message, stating they are “greatly concerned by the possibility of Israel taking unilateral steps to annex the West Bank” is more than just another opinion expressed by a few Democrats. Lowey, Engel, Deutch and Schneider are as mainstream as they come in regards to Israel, and when they speak out against an Israeli policy, they’re speaking on behalf of the Democratic establishment as a whole. At this point, it seems that the debate over the future of relations between Israel and the Democratic Party, and for that matter, between Netanyahu’s government and the American Jewish community, is all but done. There is a chasm, and it is real.
5. Will Netanyahu and Trump listen?
Why should they? Netanyahu decisively won his reelection campaign at a time when his relations with American Jews and with Democrats were at an all time low. Israeli voters didn’t seem to care. Not about what American Jews think, not about what Democrats say, and not even about the importance of bipartisanship in support for Israel. And Trump, too, has nothing to gain from playing nice with Democrats on Israel. If anything, stressing partisan differences on the issue has only played to his favor in the past and will likely continue to do so as elections approach.