DeLee sits speaking
Americans for Peace Now President and CEO Debra DeLee in the offices of J. (Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)

Trump the peacemaker? Peace Now activist ponders the possibility

A Jewish American group struggling to keep alive the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hopes to get a boost from an unlikely source — Donald Trump. In February, the president publicly disavowed it as the best solution to Mideast peace and also appointed a staunch opponent of the plan as the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Debra DeLee, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, who still sees the two-state solution as the only viable way for Israel to survive as an independent and democratic nation, said Trump’s reputation as a non-ideological dealmaker could be a “terrible detriment or it could be a very small, possible ray of hope.”

“Here’s a man who wants to do the deal, and here’s the deal that nobody else could do. What’s better for a narcissist?” she said. “So I think there’s a very real possibility. Not knowing anything about this and coming into a room and trying to do a deal. Maybe he’s the one to do the deal. I’m looking for rays of hope out here.”

The two-state solution is under severe pressure from many sides. Ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank makes the logistics of such a plan much more challenging. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who endorsed the concept in 2009 under pressure from the Obama administration, has backed off his support. In addition, Trump said last month that two states are not necessarily the solution.

Moreover, though DeLee said the two-state solution still enjoys majority approval in polls among American Jews, American Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis, that support is slipping.

“There also is, sadly, a belief in those communities that it will not happen, and a belief that the other side doesn’t want it,” she said during an interview in San Francisco.

The two-state solution, under which Israel and an independent Palestinian state exist side by side, was incorporated into the 1993 Oslo Accord and had been the policy goal of U.S. administrations since that time. APN has been a strong supporter and remains committed to the process.

Groups that support the two-state solution fear the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied territory will make it impossible to carve out a viable Palestinian state, and are further concerned because the newly approved U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a strong backer of the settlement movement.

“Four percent of Israelis are settlers,” said David Pine, APN’s West Coast regional director. “The majority of Israelis don’t want the settlements; they want a solution. Four percent should not control the country.”

The Boston-based DeLee spoke March 23 at Temple Sinai in Oakland about West Bank settlements and about a law passed by the Israeli Knesset earlier this month that prevents non-Israelis from entering the country if they have called for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of Israel or the settlements. DeLee said she now could be barred from entering Israel because she has publicly criticized settlement expansion.

DeLee, who has led APN for 20 years, chaired the Democratic National Committee in 1994-95 during the Clinton administration. Though other left-leaning groups, such as J Street, may now be better known by U.S. Jews, she said APN continues to play a big role on college campuses and in the wider political debate.

APN is the sister organization of Shalom Achshav (Hebrew for “Peace Now”), a leading Israeli peace group that Avi Buskila has led for the past year. DeLee said Buskila has injected new energy into the peace movement in Israel, and she remains hopeful APN can do the same for American Jews who support that movement.

“I would say I am an optimist always and I search for things to be optimistic about, but it’s not easy,” she said. “I’m looking for opportunities in this environment, as opposed to focusing on the doors that have closed.”

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.