The two-state solution has repeatedly failed as a matter of US policy. Around 20 progressive Democrats feel it might fare better as a matter of US law.
On Thursday, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) and a number of co-sponsors unveiled the Two-State Solution Act, which purports, at a minimum, to turn back the clock to pre-Donald Trump policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and codify into law long-standing American policy on the issue while bringing along elements of Congress’s vocal anti-Israel group’s agenda that is neither policy nor mainstream.
The bill makes a number of demands of Israelis, few asks of the Palestinian Authority and none of Hamas. But that’s a feature, not a bug, according to proponents of the legislation.
“You need to look at the broader picture and context. Israel receives $3.8 billion a year from the US, and this bill affirms that. We give relatively limited aid to the Palestinians, which is largely tied up in congressional restrictions that make it difficult to disburse. It is an example of how unbalanced the relationship is to start with,” Logan Bayroff, Vice President of J Street, an organization that labels itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace. J Street
“The overall approach isn’t about punishing or attacking Israel. It is about trying to level the playing field,” said Bayroff, whose group has been outspoken in support of the legislation.
The Two-State Solution Act aims “to preserve conditions for, and improve the likelihood of, a two-state solution that secures Israel’s future as a democratic state and a national home for the Jewish people, a viable, democratic Palestinian state.”
If passed, the bill orders the US government to take a series of steps aimed at limiting Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The bill would bar US defense aid from being used by Israel to expand its control beyond the so-called Green Line, utilizing settlement building, demolitions of Palestinian homes or evictions of Palestinian residents. Controls are already largely in place to prevent this. The bill also mandates a generally tighter accounting of how Israel spends its defense assistance funding.
The legislation states the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip are all occupied territories and should be referred to as such in all official US policies, documents and communications. The bill also mandates a reversal of a 2020 directive issued by the Trump administration that products made in Israeli settlements be labeled as “Made in Israel,” as opposed to “Made in the West Bank/Gaza.”
Additionally, the bill seeks to promote funding for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue programs, Palestinian business development, along with grants for human rights and democracy support in the territories controlled by the Palestinians – funding largely available now following last year’s passage of the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act.
The legislation also urges US President Joe Biden to follow through on his campaign pledge to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians before President Trump folded it into the embassy to Israel, along with the PLO Diplomatic Mission in Washington, which was shuttered by the former president. At the same time, it encourages the Palestinian Authority to reform its pay-for-slay policy of providing salaries to terrorists, in exchange for the US lifting its designation of the PLO as a terrorist organization.
While none of those provisions – on their own – are anathema to traditional mainstream Democratic thinking, the tone of the bill and its lead sponsor’s belief that blame for the conflict lay mostly, if not solely, with Israel, means the act is dead on arrival in a House and Senate where few, if any, Democratic votes can be discarded.
“It’s fair to say it won’t pass. It’s almost impossible to pass almost anything, right? And with the pandemic and lots of pressing issues, and the current political state of Congress, there is a complex gridlock in trying to get things passed. This bill falls into a similar area,” admitted Bayroff.
“But, like lots of other issues, it’s important to push to the types of outcomes you want to see, to promote good and smart policy. It’s laying out a marker of the types of policies we want, to push back on harmful aspects of current policy. It’s about setting an agenda, getting people on record getting behind it, and showing the administration, which has wide scope for executive action, that they have room to maneuver,” said Bayoff.
But, others argue that the low early public support from mainstream Democrats shows the bill is out of step from the party’s thinking on the conflict and doesn’t serve as the blueprint its creators believe it should be.
“Its real purpose is to stir up animosity against Israel. It invokes a false narrative, says lots of negative things about Israel and tries to get people to forget the roots and the ongoing causes of the conflict. It promotes a range of behaviors that are not conducive for peace,” countered political strategist Mark Mellman, the CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, which recruits and promotes Congressional candidates with pro-Israel leanings.
“Democrats are strongly for a two-state solution. That’s not even in question. But, when we look at the co-sponsors of this bill, you’re talking about 20 people out of well over 200 House Democrats,” said Mellman.
Backers of the bill say resolutions and sentiments about a two-state solution aren’t enough.
“It’s true that conditions aren’t ripe for peace negotiations right now. It wouldn’t be productive, based on current stances, to throw everyone in a room to negotiate. But, it’s not good enough to look at the short term and say nothing can be done. The situation will get worse over time,” said Bayroff.
“Looking at specific actions that the Trump administration took, like the labeling policy, and acceptance of the legality of settlements – at a minimum, those actions should be reversed just to get us back closer to where we were. It’s not about making radical change but just fixing damage,” Bayroff said.
But, the bill’s introduction comes at a time when Democrats are dealing with internal damage on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. A number of hard-left Democrats pressured leadership to pull a provision for $1 billion in supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which was inserted late into a largely unrelated spending bill. The funds were requested to replenish Iron Dome’s batteries after the latest Israeli-Hamas conflict in May.
The yanking of the provision caused a stir, and Democratic leadership put the funding to a standalone vote just hours after Levin’s introductory press conference. The measure passed overwhelmingly, with only nine nays, including eight Democrats. Two Democrats voted present.
The Two-State Solution Act could have a similar effect on the Democratic Party, dividing it internally. Notably, none of the bill’s co-sponsors are part of the more vocal, stridently anti-Israel faction of the caucus. Still, no Democrat outside of the bill’s co-sponsors went on record on Thursday to comment on the legislation.
“People have expressed themselves in votes. I don’t think members of Congress feel the need to say something about every piece of legislation,” said Mellman.
Still, it comes at a time where mainstream Democrats don’t want to deal with another controversy about Israel. There is a growing notion that the relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party is wrecked – something that the Israeli government says it is working hard to correct. Mellman doubles as a senior adviser to Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and was asked how it can be possible that the relationship needs major repair, while at the same time claiming that the anti-Israel wing of the party is minimal and powerless. Mellman insists both things can be true.
“My organization wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a problem with the relationship between Democrats and Israel. But, there is no question that the former Israeli government created some of those tensions. We don’t know what would have happened with the Iron Dome funding measure today if the former government had been in place,” said Mellman, laying blame at the feet of then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s tight relationship with former president Trump and Republicans, and his public disagreements with Democratic leadership.
“Lapid was able to get on the phone after the Iron Dome funding was pulled from the bill earlier this week and talk to (Senate Majority Leader Steny) Hoyer, to understand what was going on. There was and is an open channel of communication. I’m not saying the outcome would have been any different regarding today’s vote. But, the process was certainly different, and it was better than it was under the previous Israeli government,” said Mellman.
Still, Levin was derisive toward current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a longtime opponent of a Palestinian state. In his Thursday press conference, Levin referred to Bennett as a “gentleman that represents six seats in the Knesset.” This comes even as Bennett, historically showing a hard-right, nationalist bent, has become more pragmatic and cooperative with Democrats since taking office earlier this year.
Legislative maneuvers like the Two-State Solution Act, according to Bayroff, are aimed at starting a conversation. It is the kind of dialogue that mainstream Democrats, and the current Israeli government, don’t seem interested in having.