Palestinians may balk at referring to Israel as a “Jewish state,” but former Knesset member Danny Yatom knows of an entity that had no problem with the concept: the United Nations.
In 1947, in its historic Resolution 181, the U.N. put forth a partition plan for the British Mandate of Palestine that included the phrase “Jewish state” over and over.
Yatom pointed out that fun fact Feb. 26 at a town hall sponsored by J Street as part of its national “2 Campaign,” an effort to promote its “two states for two peoples” stance and to marshal support for the peace talks being spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Speaking from the bimah at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Yatom brought with him a fairly tough-guy background for a dove. He is a former major general in the Israel Defense Forces, a former head of Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) and former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Despite those experiences, or perhaps because of them, Yatom is today aligned with J Street, the left-leaning Washington, D.C.–based lobby.
“Time is of the essence,” Yatom told the audience of more than 250, referring to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “I can say time is acting against the peace process, against those who are pro-peace. Ten years from now, if these efforts collapse, then I don’t know if there will be another opportunity.”
Yatom’s chief concern appears to be the erosion of Israel’s standing as both a democratic and a Jewish state. In his view, the longer Israel’s presence in the West Bank drags on and the more the Palestinian population grows, the worse the future will be for Israel’s Jews.
“Israel will disappear,” he warned.
Conceding both sides will have to make hard choices when it comes to things like borders, settlements and the Palestinian “right of return,” Yatom placed special emphasis on Jerusalem. The city, holy to both Muslims and Jews, could become a divided capital under the terms of a peace deal.
Yatom supports that division.
“Right now, Jerusalem is 40 percent Palestinian,” he said. “In 10 years, they [Palestinians] will be the majority. We will lose Jerusalem as a Jewish city.”
One of the most important reasons — from the Israeli perspective — for creating a Palestinian state would be the establishment of real borders, Yatom said.
He referenced past conversations with fellow Israeli soldiers, in which a vast majority of them talked of preferring assignments near Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. The reason, he said: Those areas have borders, and borders are easier to defend.
Though pundits minimize the talks’ chances of success, Yatom noted a poll that shows 73 percent of Israelis support the talks. That same poll showed 77 percent believe the Palestinians are not interested in reaching an agreement, but should one emerge, Yatom thinks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could each sell a deal to their people.
He was a citing a survey conducted last month by the Israeli Peace Initiative Group, which polled 500 Israeli Hebrew speakers.
A Palestinian state would be a boon to the region, Yatom claimed: Some 21 Arab states have pledged to recognize Israel if it signs a pact with a future state of Palestine, and global campaigns against Israel, such as BDS (boycott, sanctions and divestment), would cease.
But should talks fail and conditions deteriorate, Yatom said Israel would do what it has always done.
“If we have to fight, we will fight,” he said. “But before a next war, it is vital we give a chance for negotiation.”