Talking Two States in Gush Etzion

With Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump slugging it out across the ocean, I was invited as Chair of Democrats Abroad — Israel to participate in a debate with Republicans in Israel Co-Chair Marc Zell about the American elections.  This year, the American Embassy in Tel Aviv decided to celebrate July 4th on June 30th, while the American Consulate in Jerusalem decided to mark July 4th on July 20th (!), so one can compliment the people at the Gush Etzion Community Center for choosing July 3rd to celebrate American Independence Day with what they billed “The First Annual Gush Night America.”

When I received the invitation from Yoni Riskin, he introduced himself as the Director of the Gush Etzion Foundation, and the son of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. He added that about 25% of the 25,000 residents in the Gush Etzion area are estimated to be Americans, and that the event was also co-sponsored by AACI (Association of American and Canadian Immigrants).  I knew that Rabbi Riskin had recently expressed appreciation for the “Two-States One Homeland” initiative. And I checked and saw that Yoni Riskin and I have five Facebook Friends in common, and one of them is Hagit Ofran, the head of the Peace Now Settlement Watch Committee.

Ready to go anywhere where people are ready to hear my views

I told him I had very mixed feelings about accepting the invitation, and haven’t been in Gush Etzion since my IDF basic training in 1970.  I should add that at home I was told also “don’t go, it’s dangerous!” However, after consulting with friends and colleagues, who were both pro and con, I followed the advice of journalist Gideon Levy who told me “I am ready to go anywhere where people are ready to listen to my views”. “.

The driver who picked me up, who works as maintenance man at one of the regional schools, was playing country music on his radio, “the best music” he said.  After we passed the checkpoint, he proudly pointed to the Everest Restaurant/Hotel in Beit Jallah, where he said there are regular “Peace Night” musical gatherings between the followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman and neighborhood Palestinians.

At the event itself, the Republican Marc Zell, a local resident of the nearby Tekoah settlement who I spar with frequently on Israeli radio and TV, said to me with a sly look “I see you crossed the Green Line”. At the opening of my presentation, I described my deliberations about coming, and the crowd gave a loud round of applause.  That was the last applause that I got.

A steady and experienced hand to navigate the unsettled waters of international affairs

I noted that the recent British vote for Brexit sent tremors through the international community, and said that America and the world needs a president with a steady and experienced hand to navigate the unsettled waters of international affairs.  Hillary Clinton is that candidate, and there’s no doubt that most foreign policy experts in America and the international community, including the Republican foreign policy establishment,  believe that she is more qualified to be president today than Donald Trump. Here I will note that former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, now a Member of Knesset, who also participated in the evening, noted that from his experience, Clinton was a very serious person, while Trump tended towards  isolationist views with the slogan “America First”, a comment which angered Republican Marc Zell.

I added that America needs a president who can unite all parts of the country, not a president who insults Latinos, Muslims, Blacks, women and the disabled.  Here I said that Trump should take a cue from his British twin Boris Johnson, who understood that he does not have what it takes to unite Great Britain and stepped down.

Trump, the least prepared candidate for president ever (Thomas Friedman), vs. Clinton, one of the best prepared candidates (Photo: YouTube)

The two-state solution

Then I got to the draft of the Democratic Party Platform on the Middle East. I noted that the platform draft advocates working toward a “two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” that guarantees Israel’s security with recognized borders “and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty and dignity”.  And then all hell broke loose.

“Two-states! – ridiculous, not possible.”  When I recommended that they read the latest article by Shaul Arieli in Haaretz, they gasped “Ha’aretz!” (horrors of horrors). The same response when I mentioned the Oslo Accords. Arieli’s June 27th article, “Look at the Figures: Israel’s Settlement Enterprise Has Failed”, describes how the settlement enterprise has not succeeded to prevent the possibility of a two-state solution. I said that a President Clinton would probably base her policy towards the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Clinton Parameters formulated by President Bill Clinton in December 2000.  And to reassure them, I added that they shouldn’t worry because their region will probably be included within the framework of a mutually agreed-upon land swap, so they would be able to remain.

In contrast with my simple statement about the two-state solution, Republican co-chair Marc Zell said he was going to the Republican convention to lobby for the removal of support from the two-state formula from the Republican platform, a statement which received a round of applause from the audience. In this he echoed comments by one of Trump’s advisors on Israeli affairs, David Friedman, though I understand that even AIPAC is opposed to such a move, in fear that it would place the Republicans to the right of Prime Minister Netanyahu who gives at least lip-service to the idea of two states. In response, I noted that support for two-states has always been a bi-partisan policy of both Democrats and Republicans, part of the consensus of the international community.

The Iran Deal

I got into another shouting match with part of the audience when I defended the importance of the Iran deal, noting that all major security experts in the country say that Israel does not face any existential  security threats, and even the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission says that the deal is in Israel’s best interest.   

“You’re lying!” came shouts from the audience.

Somehow, the evening drew to a close, and later Rabbi Riskin’s wife and another one of the organizers came over to me to apologize for the rudeness of the audience.

The panel on the elections: (l to r) Hillel Schenker, Chair DA – Israel, Brig. Gen. (Res) Yossi Kuperwasser, Sr. Project Dir. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Marc Zell, Co-Chair Republicans in Israel, moderator Dan Diker, Sr. Project Dir. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Back to the State of Israel

As I was leaving, the organizer Yoni Riskin said to me, “People who live in Tel Aviv tend to have a naive view of things, and don’t understand what we are going through.” My response was, yes, people in Tel Aviv want to live a normal life, and aren’t interested in coming to visit Gush Etzion. Many don’t even come to visit Jerusalem. However we understand very well what the reality is. We simply have a different world view, a different view of what the solution to the conflict should be, based upon a genuine two-state solution.

As the driver drove me back to West Jerusalem and we passed the checkpoint, I felt very relieved to be returning to the State of Israel.

About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv