Thomas Friedman: America risks loving Israel to death

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN


Amos Yadlin, the former head of military intelligence in Israel, likes to say that Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy faces two existential threats: a nuclear-armed Iran and turning itself into a binational state by permanently occupying the West Bank with its 2.5 million Palestinians. And while Israel has a strategy for addressing the first threat, it has none for the second.

A key reason that it doesn't, in my view, is due to a third existential threat. It's a threat from America — particularly from President Donald Trump, but also from pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress and from AIPAC, the Israel lobbying organization.

It's the threat that America will love Israel to death.

By indulging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his quest for permanent Israeli control over the West Bank, Trump, Congress and the Israel lobby are going to create a situation whereby the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank will eventually collapse. The Palestinians there will then tell Israel, as some already have, that they want Israeli citizenship. Israel will then find itself ruling over 2.5 million Palestinians with the choice of either sharing power with them on the basis of equality or systematically denying it to them.

When that happens the debate over what Israel should do will rip apart every synagogue, Jewish Federation and Jewish institution in America — including AIPAC. As long as there was a credible two-state solution on the table, that debate was muted. But once that's gone, all hell will break loose in the Jewish world and between progressives and Israel's supporters on every U.S. college campus. It's already started.

Up until Trump, Democratic and Republican presidents had played the role of "reality enforcer" for both Israeli and Arab leaders. In Israel and most Arab ruling circles, you have a mix of hard-liners, moderates and sheer crazies. The U.S. president's job has been to draw red lines so Israeli prime ministers or Arab leaders could say to their extremists: "Hey, I'd love to do that crazy thing you want me to do. My heart is with you. But the American president would break my arm if I did. So we're not going to do that crazy thing, even though my heart is with you!"

Trump has abandoned that U.S. role. Instead, he's pursuing a policy of steadily weakening the Palestinian Authority while steadily lifting restraints on Israel's creeping annexation of the West Bank.

Trump's "anything goes" approach for Israel (and for America's Arab allies — that's how Jamal Khashoggi got assassinated by the Saudis) is presented as a strategic shift. It's actually driven by Trump's quest to get more campaign donations from far-right Jewish megadonor Sheldon Adelson and to get Jews to leave the Democratic Party and vote Republican.

Bibi praises Trump and Trump gives Bibi the Golan Heights without asking for anything in return. Trump keeps weakening and threatening the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, for "incitement" against Israelis while saying nothing when Netanyahu incites against Israeli Arabs, telling them that they are not real citizens, that only Jews are.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is corrupt and mismanaged and does at times incite violence, but it's the last best hope for a two-state deal between Israelis and Palestinians. It also provides a basic infrastructure for Palestinian life and, as any Israeli intelligence officer will tell you, it provides vital, daily cooperation with Israel's security services that has helped to keep the West Bank largely quiet for years — and relieved Israel of the costs of administering it directly.

But the arms race between Trump and the Democrats over who can be more unblinkingly pro-Israel has now led to a series of punitive U.S. actions against the Palestinian Authority that have brought it close to collapse. This only hastens the day when Palestinians will say to Bibi and Trump: "OK, you guys won. We lost. The two-state solution is gone, so let us become Israeli citizens, and give us the vote."

No, you say, that will be prevented by Jared Kushner's peace plan. I doubt that. The Kushner plan appears to be one of autonomy for the Palestinians — not an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel — and Kushner's strategy is to offer the Palestinian people so many financial incentives that they will, in effect, overthrow their own leadership and accept the U.S. plan. Good luck with that.

In sum: There is no coherent U.S. strategy here. There is only a competition over who can love Israel to death the most for their own reasons. And the question of whether or not to still support Israel — when it's no longer a Jewish democracy — will tear apart every synagogue and Jewish organization across the world.