AIPAC, Israel, and the Hypocritical Claim of Backing a Two-State Solution

AIPAC endorses the Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state, but its support for an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and refusal to publicly back dismantling illegal settlements raise questions.

Chris Kleponis, AFP / Getty Images

It was a big weekend for Israel conferences. In Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual policy conference. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a 27-year-old student from the Gaza Strip named Ahmed Moor organized a conference on the “one-state solution”: the idea that the Jewish state of Israel should be replaced with one ostensibly secular, binational state encompassing Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Barack Obama attended the AIPAC conference, along with dozens if not hundreds of members of Congress. Moor’s conference, by contrast, was a political leper. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown urged Harvard to cancel it. Prominent Harvard donors reportedly threatened to cancel gifts. Harvard’s president expressed her “deep concern” about the event; the Kennedy School’s dean declared himself “deeply disappointed.”

What makes the AIPAC conference so laudable and its Kennedy School cousin so revolting? On the surface, the answer is obvious: AIPAC believes in two states, while Moor’s allies believe in one. Sounds like a reasonable distinction, especially if you—like me—believe in a democratic Jewish state alongside a democratic Palestinian one. And indeed, on its homepage, AIPAC endorses something similar: “a negotiated two-state solution—a Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state.”

But the closer you look, the blurrier the distinction between the two conferences becomes. According to David Ellwood, the Kennedy School’s dean, not all the speakers at Moor’s conference actually support one state. And a peek at the AIPAC roster suggests that not all its speakers support two states. On Tuesday morning, for instance, AIPAC will hear from Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who declared last November, “All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis. There are not Palestinians. There is no Palestinian. This is Israeli land.” Certainly sounds like a one-state perspective to me.

How could an organization so repulsed by the one-state agenda give an avowed one-stater such a prominent speaking role? Because when you scratch the surface, AIPAC isn’t as hostile to the one-state agenda as it first appears.

Consider the organization’s 2012 “action principles.” These principles, which will guide AIPAC’s legislative agenda for 2012, were approved in private session by the body’s National Council the morning that the conference began. They consist of 12 bullet points, none of which mentions the words “Palestinian state” or “two-state solution.” To the contrary, some are actively hostile to the idea. In point six, for instance, AIPAC pledges to “work for the recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” But every serious model for a two-state solution—be it the parameters outlined by Bill Clinton in December 2000 or the Geneva Accord struck by former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 2003—envisions the opposite: a capital divided between a Jewish and Palestinian state.

Point 10 of AIPAC’s “action principles” calls for “global recognition of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.” Since returning to office three years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu has made this demand—for Palestinian recognition not merely of Israel, but of Israel as a Jewish state—central to his negotiating strategy. But like AIPAC’s insistence on an undivided Jerusalem, it contradicts the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Accord. In fact, when Netanyahu unveiled the demand in June 2009 at Bar-Ilan University, his own father said it made a two- state solution impossible. “He doesn’t support [a Palestinian state],” explained Benzion Netanyahu after his son’s speech. “He supports the sorts of conditions that they [the Palestinians] will never accept.”

At the meeting that endorsed these principles, AIPAC’s National Council never even considered a statement of support for the two-state solution. But a small, progressive Jewish group called Ameinu, which because of AIPAC’s complex governing structure is represented on the National Council, introduced an amendment gesturing modesty in that direction. “AIPAC,” the amendment declared, “supports Israel’s commitment to democratic values and the rule of law, including the protection of minorities and the dismantling of illegal settlement outposts.” The last phrase is key. Ameinu wasn’t asking AIPAC to support dismantling any regular settlements, although doing so would obviously be a prerequisite for creating a contiguous Palestinian state. It was merely asking AIPAC to publicly support the dismantling of “illegal settlement outposts”: in other words, those wildcat settlements that even the Israeli government deems illegal.

AIPAC’s board discouraged Ameinu from offering the amendment, but the group persisted. And so behind closed doors, at 8 a.m. Sunday, it went before AIPAC’s National Council. Ameinu Vice President Judith Gelman spoke in favor of the amendment. Then an AIPAC board member, Howard Green, spoke against it, arguing that AIPAC should not tell the Israeli government what to do. (Even though the amendment only called on Israel to enforce its own laws.) After that, the amendment was defeated by a voice vote of roughly—in Gelman’s estimation—300 to five.

By a vote of 300 to five, in other words, AIPAC voted down not a call for a Palestinian state, nor even a call for Israel to uproot the official settlements that impair such a state, but a call to merely dismantle the illegal outposts opposed by the Israeli government itself. No wonder Tom Dine, who knows a bit about AIPAC, having run it from 1980 to 1993, says the organization’s real position on a two-state solution is “We’ll work against it until it happens.”

So perhaps the deeper gulf separating the AIPAC conference from its Kennedy School cousin isn’t about one versus two states at all. It’s about what the nature of that one state will be. AIPAC demands that it be Jewish; Moor wants it to be secular and binational (though I suspect that in practice it would be far uglier than that).

On one level, the two views are diametrically opposed, and the struggle between them is spilling vast quantities of ink and blood. But if you believe in a democratic Jewish state—democratic because it has released the millions of noncitizen Palestinians over whom it rules and allowed them a state of their own—the AIPAC and Kennedy School conferences look like silent co-conspirators. AIPAC serves as political bodyguard for the settlement process that brings one state ever closer; Moor builds a movement to divest that state of its Jewish character. And together, they serve as pallbearers for that quaint idea envisioned by Israel’s declaration of independence, a state that both safeguards the Jewish people and offers “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.”