WASHINGTON — In one telling moment, the Jewish state’s rising right-wing star and the Democratic Party’s most prominent pro-Israel donor demonstrated just how deep the coming gap may be between Israel and its closest ally.
Haim Saban, a key backer of Hillary Clinton who grew up in Israel and launched his career there, wanted to know how, in the face of worldwide opposition, Naftali Bennett planned to implement his vision of annexing most of the West Bank to Israel while denying the Palestinians a state of their own.
“We have to change direction,” Israel’s current economy minister told the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in response to this question from the forum’s sponsor. “It’s already working in Israel. Now we have only a little thing called the rest of the world. But you have to start somewhere. So I’m starting here.”
But even in Washington, capital of the Jewish state’s staunchest ally in the world, the response of the gathered elite portended a newer, even tougher stage in the two countries’ relationship should Israel’s right-wing bloc win the country’s upcoming election.
In the event of such a victory Bennett is expected to emerge, at the least, as Israel’s defense or foreign minister — a prospect that set off alarm bells in Washington at the December 7 forum.
“Bennett is playing with diplomatic fire,” said David Makovsky, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and until recently a member of the U.S. peace team that tried but failed to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal. “With talk of European delegitimization and potential economics sanctions with Israel’s largest trading partner, he would do more than light the match. He could burn down the house.”
For America, as for most of the rest of the world, abandoning the idea of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is considered a heresy. But Bennett’s rapidly accelerating popularity may make it a heresy whose entrenchment within Israel’s mainstream America will no longer be able to ignore.
In what he describes as a practical approach to the conflict, Bennett proposes annexing some 60% of the West Bank to Israel and setting up a well-funded autonomy for Palestinians in the rest of the territory. Within these boundaries, the Palestinians, he says, would have greater local freedom. But Bennett rejects granting them sovereign rights over their land and its resources, much less over their foreign relations or their security and defense.
In the past, Washington has proven itself adept at sidestepping Israeli politicians that it deemed too extreme, even when they occasionally made their way from the fringes into crucial cabinet seats. Such has been the case with Avigdor Lieberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign minister, a Soviet-born-and-bred politician who has called, among other things, for bombing Egypt’s Aswan dam. Lieberman has also advocated stripping Israeli citizenship from hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs as part of a peace deal in which they would become part of a Palestinian state. The Obama administration has, for the most part, simply snubbed Lieberman and conducted its business with Netanyahu directly and with other ministers of its choosing.
But Bennett, with a base of public support that is likely to be greatly augmented by the coming election, poses a bigger dilemma for Washington. His ascent is seen as reflecting something fundamentally more serious than one man’s successful jockeying to the top tier in Israel’s fractious political culture. Until now, Washington has clung tenaciously to Netanyahu’s affirmation, however wan, of support for a two-state solution to resolve Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its blockade of Gaza and its conflict with the Palestinians. But Bennett puts his stand against this idea at the center of his political persona. That could force America to confront a new reality.
In November, Bennett highlighted his determination to put his views before an international audience by reaching out over Netanyahu’s head directly to the American public. In a New York Times op-ed, he called on readers to “re-think the two state solution” and presented the essentials of his plan for dealing with the conflict: upgrading Palestinian autonomy in 40% of the West Bank territory, in the sectors known as Areas A and B; drastically increasing investments in these areas; and annexing to Israel the remaining 60% of the land, known as Area C.