Israel, and by extension the United States, are poised at the entrance to a dangerous path. The model democracy of the Middle East risks transforming into a global pariah on the scale of South Africa when it was in the depths of its apartheid nightmare.
After decades of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, the idea of a one-state solution looms anew, as conservative elements in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition see the arrival of Donald Trump and his new ambassador to Israel as an opportunity to push their agenda.
If it is realized, it would reduce Israel’s Palestinian population to a permanent underclass and mean, in the not-too-distant future, that a Jewish minority would be ruling a Muslim majority, with the world on the side of the oppressed majority.
The United States would be its only friend and ally — relegating Washington to a role equally isolated from mainstream opinion throughout the region and far beyond.
This seems to be the role that President-elect Trump is carving out for America, and the role that Netanyahu is skirting perilously close to for Israel.
Trump’s ambassador-designate, David Friedman, the President-elect’s longtime friend and bankruptcy lawyer, has spent much of his career advocating and raising money for the one-state concept. His arrival in Israel will only reinforce the dramatic shift toward the more extreme parties in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition that now seem to be calling the shots.
It was not always this way. Three months after taking office, on June 14, 2009, just 10 days after a recently inaugurated President Barack Obama gave his landmark Middle East speech at Cairo University, Netanyahu, in a televised speech to his people, embraced a two-state solution.
Over the next eight years, Israel has solidified its position as one of the world’s most technologically innovative countries, a bastion of democracy surrounded by an ocean of autocracies or theocracies.
Five years ago, World Policy Journal used a basket of indicators to identify Israel, alongside Finland and Singapore as the world’s three most innovative countries. At the time, Israel had the largest number of startups in the world outside the United States — 3,850, or one for every 1,844 Israelis, according to the Israel Venture Capital Research Center. It had more companies listed on America’s tech-heavy Nasdaq than the entire European continent.
The pace has only accelerated since then. More importantly, today Israel has more than 250 research units owned by or doing business for multinationals, the vast majority American companies such as IBM, Apple, Intel, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco and HP.
All of which makes Israel uniquely vulnerable. If Israel pursues the one-state solution, integrating ever larger stretches of Palestinian territory and population, while disenfranchising the people who live there, demographic realities will all too quickly make Jewish people a minority in their own country. Already, Israel’s own census bureau shows a virtually equal number of Jewish and Arab people sharing the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And Arab people, largely Palestinians, are expected to outnumber Jewish people by 2020.
Neither choice of what would follow under a one-state scenario is particularly appealing. John Kerry described the alternatives in his Wednesday speech: “If the choice is one-state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, it cannot be both. And it won’t ever really be at peace.”
But Kerry did not go far enough in painting the horrors that would result from Israel’s efforts to maintain a Jewish-ruled state, for this Jewish minority would be controlling an increasingly unruly and oppressed majority. The world, apart from the United States, will no longer be on its side.
At this point, the South Africa example is most instructive. Recall the state of that country as the campaign to abolish apartheid built up steam — a privileged white minority ruling a black majority in a violent and brutal system. Economic and trade sanctions gradually beginning to strangle this nation that had historically been Africa’s most prosperous. The arrival of worldwide consumer boycotts, campaigns to sell off stock of any company doing business with this pariah state.
Recall the list of American companies currently operating in Israel; they would find themselves vulnerable to boycotts and sanctions. Their departure would quickly back Israel into a corner even more isolated than South Africa.
Inevitably, a Palestinian Nelson Mandela would emerge — a symbolic freedom fighter who Israel would have to demonize or imprison. I served as speechwriter to Mandela during his first visit to the United States after his release from prison. He was lionized from New York to Los Angeles and confided in me that he had no doubt his suffering was key to the end of apartheid in his country.
But if apartheid was toxic merely to South Africa, a one-state solution and a globally blacklisted Israel threatens to be toxic to the entire Middle East. Already, the United States has been marginalized in the latest Syrian ceasefire and peace process — with Turkey and Russia taking the lead. An apartheid system in Israel would risk leaving Russia to assume its long-sought role of dominance across the region, a position as peacemaker that would leave it paramount.
On the outside, nose pressed against the glass, would stand a newly powerless United States, with only a single, deeply ostracized friend in the region.
The text of the latest Security Council resolution calls on all UN member states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” — language that Netanyahu fears could lead to a surge in boycott and sanctions efforts. The resolution passed the UN Security Council 14 to 0 — with countries from Britain and France, to Russia, China, New Zealand, Egypt, even Ukraine, voting to approve.
Trump has set the US on this perilous path — hardly one that would seem calculated to end with the Middle East peace he hopes to broker. His initial statements in support of Netanyahu, along with a series of tweets, have been accompanied by the designation of Friedman as his new ambassador.
As it happens, Ronald Reagan, who dined with Friedman’s father, Rabbi Morris Friedman, in 1984 — his son, David seated at his side — was not seduced by the one-state solution. Today, most liberal Israelis also recognize this concept for what it is — an impossible dream.
The United States must seek to pull the region back from the brink and come to a similar realization.
David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the co-author, with the Count de Marenches, head of the DGSE, of The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage the Age of Terrorism. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.