On Monday, a radical cleric issued a statement rejecting a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, suggesting that one of the two parties involved in the conflict should be made to find a homeland "elsewhere." Strangely, conservatives, who can usually be counted on to condemn such statements, have thus far been silent about this denial of the right of two peoples to two states in the Holy Land.
But perhaps it's not so strange, given that the cleric in question is Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, non-ordained Southern Baptist pastor, and former (and likely future) Republican presidential candidate. Speaking to reporters while on a tour of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, Huckabee insisted that there is no room for a Palestinian state "in the middle of the Jewish homeland" and that the international community should consider giving the Palestinians a state some place else.
Huckabee's visit is being sponsored by the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, a pro-settler group whose goal is to take over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem in order to prevent any division of sovereignty over the city, parts of which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. A recent Ha'aretz article reported that the Jerusalem Reclamation Project's U.S. affiliate, American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, "sends millions of shekels worth of donations to Israel every year for clearly political purposes, such as buying Arab properties in East Jerusalem." The story noted that, while American Friends of Ateret Cohanim is registered as a nonprofit organization, its financing of settlements in East Jerusalem raised questions about the group's tax-exempt status.
This isn't the first time Huckabee has made such inflammatory statements. On a visit to Israel in August 2008, Huckabee said that "the two-state solution is no solution, but will cause only problems," insisting that "the Palestinians can create their homeland in many other places in the Middle East, outside Israel." The Jerusalem Post also reported that Huckabee said, with no apparent irony, that he "did not want to impose his views on the situation or to Americanize it."
A year ago, however, the U.S. and Israel were not at such loggerheads over the settlements issue. The Obama administration has recognized the settlements both as a generator of Palestinian anger and a major Israeli strategic liability. Soon after taking office, President Barack Obama made clear that, unlike previous presidents, he intended to firmly hold Israel to its commitment to halt settlement growth. Closing various loopholes that Israel had used to more than double the settlement population in the West Bank since the mid-1990s, the Obama team has insisted upon a complete freeze as called for in President George W. Bush's 2003 "road map." The Washington Post notes today that even under the "road map" the Jewish population in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, increased from about 224,000 to about 290,000. As Gershom Gorenberg wrote in July, by moving forward with projects in Arab East Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel has attempted to shift the argument from settlements to sovereignty over Jerusalem, where he feels he is on firmer ground in regard to American pro-Israel conservatives.
And now Huckabee has gone to Israel in order to proclaim himself firmly on Netanyahu's side and in opposition to the American president. In fact, Huckabee has positioned himself to the right of Netanyahu, who in June belatedly affirmed Israel's commitment to two states (even if his heavily qualified definition of "Palestinian state" amounted to little more than a flag, a song, and a police force).
But it's one thing for an Israeli prime minister to play to his extremist base. It's quite another for an American political leader to travel abroad and ally himself with extremists against U.S. policy. The question now is whether Huckabee will pay a political price for doing so. The goal of two states for two peoples is now the firm consensus position of American politics -- even if some conservatives often seem to oppose substantive steps toward realizing that goal. At its annual policy conference in May, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful conservative pro-Israel lobby, released a letter proclaiming its support for a "viable Palestinian state." Since then, AIPAC has moved several letters through Congress reiterating that support, signed by staunch pro-Israel hawks such as Eric Cantor and Steny Hoyer. Can a prominent American conservative leader now oppose this consensus, reject the right of the Palestinian people to a state in their homeland, and even endorse population transfer as a solution -- which is, after all, the clear implication of Huckabee's suggestion that the Palestinians should find a homeland "elsewhere" -- and still hope to run for president?
Huckabee's folksy manner shouldn't distract from the extremism of these views or from the problem such fanaticism poses for Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans. The settlements, and the Israeli military occupation that facilitates them, impose extraordinary hardships upon the Palestinians, a reality Huckabee turned on its head when he compared Jewish settlers to African Americans in the Jim Crow South. "Mike Huckabee's views when it comes to the Middle East are so far outside of the mainstream of American politics and American foreign policy so as to be almost dangerous," says Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group in D.C. "When responsible leaders walk into a danger zone and they see a fire burning, they try to put it out." Huckabee, on the other hand, "walks up to a fire and decides to douse it with lighter fluid," Ben-Ami adds. "This is not the way to help Israel find long-term peace and security. And it's not the way to help the Middle East find the stability that is in America's long-term interests."
A recent report by the Center for American Progress notes that "the window of opportunity for achieving a viable two-state solution is rapidly closing" and calls upon President Obama to work quickly to build support among Arab and Israeli publics for such a solution. Huckabee is considered to be a front-runner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. It remains to be seen whether his decision to stoke the fire in the Middle East by declaring himself an enemy of the two-state consensus will act as a handicap to his presidential aspirations -- or whether it will only increase his appeal among hard-line fundamentalist voters.