Sovereignty, not settlements: Did we ignore Donald Trump’s unprecedented offer?

With the following six words — “one state, two states, whatever works” — President Donald Trump sought to transform the parameters of our conflict with the Palestine Arabs living on both sides of the Green Line.

From now on, so the president hoped, Israel’s argument with the Palestine Arabs would stop being about settlements and security.  Instead, the peace process would become a negotiation about the territorial boundary lines of the Jewish state.

With that one short sentence — “one state two states, whatever works” — the president expressed his determination to shift the attention of his administration, and of our government, from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to the Jewish people’s right to exclusive sovereignty over its entire biblical patrimony.

And to underscore the importance of this determination and focus our government’s attention on the unprecedented opportunity that he was presenting to us, the president’s next words — carefully chosen and cautiously uttered but made to appear as if they just tumbled out of his mouth — were nothing less than the first salvo in these negotiations.  Said the president, “I’d like to see the settlements stop for a while.”

“Oh, no,” came the furious cry from our clueless government flacks led by the most annoying screeches which bellowed forth from the mouth of our miscast Minister of Defense.  “The settlements again!” The sky is falling.  “The Trump administration is just like the Obama administration.”

But it is most assuredly not.

Citizens of Israel, we are not in Kansas anymore.

And a proper understanding of the political and social context of Donald Trump’s Manhattan-based world view will verify this fact.

Once upon a time, the Grand Street co-ops on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where I lived for a bit more than a quarter of a century, was the hub of Jewish life in New York City.  But in the 25-plus years that I lived there, the boundaries of the Jewish community kept shrinking, as we kept losing more and more of our “territory” to our Asian neighbors living just a stone’s throw away in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

By the time I quit Grand Street for my new home in Efrat, Chinatown had expanded across Allen Street, consumed most of East Broadway, and was threatening to take over much of Essex Street. The white-skinned Jews of Lower Manhattan, who had mostly succeeded in transforming themselves from Yiddish-speaking immigrants into English-speaking Americans, were being slowly but inexorably displaced by shorter, thinner, and darker skinned men and women of “Oriental heritage” who we imagined had slanted eyes and who seemed to speak Chinese.

And yet, despite this tectonic shift in the demographic profile of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, not once during the entire period of my residence there, or in the many years since I moved away from there, did the People’s Republic of China, or even the democratic Government of Taiwan, advance a claim of sovereignty over the area based upon its changing demographic character.

Perhaps even more astonishingly, during this entire period, the context of racist prejudice, so crudely captured by the nasty epithets which we used to describe each other, began to slip away, at least in the cadences of the young.  Today, those epithets have been mostly replaced by the mundane language of business and real estate, who’s rich, who’s nice, what music do you like.

Why did this happen? Because Manhattan’s Lower East Side is safely tucked inside of the territorial boundary lines of the United States of America. And for this reason, indeed, only for this reason, every single legal resident of the neighborhood — on both sides of Allen Street — was accorded all of the rights and all of the privileges which the United States of America grants to all of its citizens, including the right to vote, as residents of their home state, in America’s national elections.

And the people of the neighborhood celebrated their inclusion into the American nation without regard to their diverse ethnic identities.  It was almost as if they imagined that their forbearers had been on board the Mayflower, sitting alongside of Governor Bradford when the ship docked at Plymouth Bay in Massachusetts.

This is the world which produced Donald Trump.  America’s new president, born and bred in New York City, is enamored with the liberating diversity of Manhattan.  And in Donald Trump’s world, nothing is more valuable than the opportunities which flow from such diversity, which sometimes even include gaining a Modern Orthodox Jewish son-in-law.

President Trump is convinced that what works in Manhattan, even in the ethnic cauldron of its Lower East Side, will work anywhere in the world, and especially in the State of Israel.

Here, in the land of our forefathers, where we the Jews are not just another cultural linguistic group desperately clinging to a shrinking territorial base but the actual sovereigns over the entire patrimony, if only because of the biblical provenance of the Jewish state’s territorial boundary lines, the benefits of diversity is a sure thing.

For this reason, the president meant what he said following his inaugural meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu — “one state, two states, whatever works.” If Israel would annex the West Bank, Judea and Samaria would longer be occupied territory. And he and his administration would have nothing to say about Jewish settlements there.

Houses in Amona or in Ofra in the no longer occupied West Bank would be just like the Chinese eatery that replaced Sam’s Kosher Delicatessen on Rivington Street or the Chinese owned tile shop that currently occupies the storefront that once housed Noah’s Ark Kosher Pizzeria on East Broadway.

If Judea and Samaria were safely tucked inside of Israel’s territorial boundary lines, the Jewish state’s exclusive sovereign authority in the area would not be challenged by any foreign power, whatever its ethnic or demographic profile may be. And certainly not by his administration.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, Israel’s “most right wing government ever” received President Trump’s unprecedented offer with two deaf ears. Instead of embracing the opportunity with open arms, Binyamin Netanyahu, thoroughly exhausted and utterly drained from serving for way too long as our Prime Minister, ignored the president’s offer to support a move toward annexation and instead made believe that President Trump is not quite the partisan of settlements that David Friedman projected and certainly not the champion of Greater Israel that Tzipi Hotovely and Naftali Bennett imagine.

No wonder the president reached out to the Palestinian Authority this past Friday.

But no matter. The offer of sovereignty negotiations with our American dealmaker is on the table for us to accept, counteroffer, or reject.  If we choose to accept or counter-offer, the Land of Israel will be ours in some form, up to its biblical boundary lines.  But if we continue to reject it outright, our most right wing government ever will have served no national purpose at all.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY