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Thomas L. Friedman: How the Mideast conflict is blowing up the region, the Democratic Party and every synagogue in America

It is vital that Biden urgently take steps to re-energize the possibility of a two-state solution.

A child raises a Palestinian flag and cheers as spectators gather beside the rubble of the al-Jalaa building following a cease-fire reached after an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. The building as the home of the Associated Press bureau in Gaza City for 15 years. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Lord knows, I sympathize with President Joe Biden’s desire to avoid getting dragged into mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas made something crystal clear to me: Unless we preserve at least the potential of a two-state solution, the one-state reality that would emerge in its place won’t just blow up Israel, the West Bank and Gaza; it could very well blow up the Democratic Party and every Jewish organization and synagogue in America.

Yes, that’s what I learned last week.

I don’t expect Biden to summon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Camp David. As long as both are in power, no serious compromise is possible. But it is vital that Biden urgently take steps to re-energize the possibility of a two-state solution and give it at least some concrete diplomatic manifestation on the ground.

Because without that horizon — without any viable hope of separating Israelis and Palestinians into two states for two peoples — the only outcome left will be one state in which the Israeli majority dominates and Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will be systematically deprived of equal rights so that Israel can preserve its Jewish character.

If that happens, the charge that Israel has become an apartheid-like entity will resonate and gain traction far and wide. The Democratic Party will be fractured. A rising chorus of progressives — who increasingly portray the Israeli army’s treatment of Palestinians as equivalent to the Minneapolis Police Department’s treatment of Black people or to the treatment by colonial powers of Indigenous peoples — will insist on distancing the United States from Israel and, maybe, even lead to bans on arms sales.

Meanwhile, centrist Democrats will push back that these progressives are incredibly naIve, that they have no clue how many two-state peace plans the Palestinians have already rejected — which decimated the Israeli peace camp — and that none of their causes, from women’s rights to LGBTQ rights to religious pluralism, would last a minute on the Hamas-run campus of the Islamic University of Gaza.

As the past two weeks demonstrated, every Jewish organization and synagogue in America will be heatedly divided over this question: Are you willing to defend a one-state Israel that is not even pretending to be a democracy anymore, a one-state Israel whose leaders prefer to rely on the uncritical support of evangelicals than the critical support of Jews?

Finally, Jewish and non-Jewish students on every college campus also will be forced to wrestle with this question or run as far away as possible from the debate. More and more will abandon Israel. You can already see it happening. And anti-Semitism will flourish under the guise of anti-Zionism.

It will get very ugly. All nuance will be lost. Twitter and Facebook will become battlefields between Israel’s critics and defenders, and Donald Trump and the Republicans will fan the flames, telling American Jews that they have no future in the Democratic Party and beckoning them to come over to the GOP — which, with its evangelical base, does indeed unquestioningly support the Jewish state … for now.

“People need to understand that this issue has been transformed in the past two weeks,’' said Gidi Grinstein, the president of the Reut Group, a leading Israeli think tank. “The place of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inside American society and politics — and inside the Jewish community — has morphed from a bipartisan issue to a wedge issue.’'

And it is a wedge issue now not only between Democrats and Republicans, he added, “but also between Democrats and Democrats. This is very bad news for Israel and for the Jewish people. Israel and Biden must urgently collaborate to defuse it.’'

Therefore, I hope that when the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week, he conveys a very clear message: “From this day forward, we will be treating the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as a Palestinian state in the making, and we will be taking a series of diplomatic steps to concretize Palestinian statehood in order to preserve the viability of a two-state solution. We respect both of your concerns, but we are determined to move forward because the preservation of a two-state solution now is not only about your national security interests; it is about our national security interests in the Middle East. And it is about the political future of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party. So we all need to get this right.’'

For starters, Biden should reshape U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian relations by opening a diplomatic mission to the PA — as the nascent Palestinian state government — near its headquarters in Ramallah. At the same time, he should invite the PA to send a diplomatic representative to Washington as the would-be ambassador of a future Palestinian state.

The Trump administration, spearheaded by its ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a rabid supporter of Jewish settlements across the West Bank, did something really reckless: It not only moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, without getting any Israeli concessions in return; it also closed the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem — which had long been the separate and distinct U.S. diplomatic link to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza. Trump just folded it into the Palestinian affairs unit in our embassy to Israel, reporting to the U.S. ambassador.

This effectively wiped out any separate diplomatic representation of the United States to the PA. Instead, Trump expanded the mandate of the U.S. ambassador to Israel to include the PA in the West Bank and Hamas-led Gaza. In other words, rather than having two embassies for two peoples, Trump created a one-state embassy, with a one-state ambassador, which together mirrored Israel’s drift toward a one-state solution. By opening a U.S. diplomatic mission in Ramallah and not just East Jerusalem, Biden would be reversing that and reinforcing the PA’s nascent state status.

Second, Biden should propose negotiations on peace with Trump’s plan as the starting point. It roughly proposed that Israel would get 30% of the West Bank and the Palestinians 70%, plus land swaps. Palestinians would have a capital outside Jerusalem. The plan was ridiculously lopsided in Israel’s favor, and Palestinians rejected it outright. But the fact that Netanyahu accepted it makes it an effective starting point — not endpoint — for negotiations. It could also generate some GOP support for Biden’s two-state revival.

Third, the U.S. should encourage the six Arab states that have normalized relations with Israel (Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates) to simultaneously move their embassies from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem — which all countries in the world recognize as part of Israel and which would make Israelis happy — and open embassies to the nascent Palestinian state in Ramallah, just like the United States. This, too, would reinforce the two-state reality, and Israel would find it very hard to oppose.

Fourth, the U.S. should encourage these Arab states to massively increase their financial support to the Palestinian Authority and make help for Gaza conditional on aid flowing only through the PA — not directly to Hamas and not through international organizations like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Again, as long as Netanyahu and Abbas are leading their respective entities, the prospects of concluding a two-state agreement are remote. But at least these steps would preserve the possibility of one down the road. Today, that is more important than ever — not just for Israelis and Palestinians but also for many Americans and Democratic Party lawmakers, for world Jewry and for Biden himself.

Thomas L. Friedman | The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Middle East coverage and commentary, is a columnist for The New York Times.

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