Ilan Goldenberg is hoping to bring back insight about Israel’s recent military success countering Iran, to delve into the Palestinian conflict and to get a pulse of the nation on the eve of elections in a weeklong visit to his native land.
The senior fellow and director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. will then share his observations during a Sept. 25 talk at the City Club of Cleveland.
“I think Israel has done a pretty remarkable job of finding ways to push back without escalating to the point of a major conflict,” Goldenberg said of the country’s recent military strategy in the north.
“There’s a lot of hesitancy from the U.S. military to do anything in Syria, for example,” he said.
Goldenberg, 41, was born in Jerusalem and grew up in New Jersey. He renounced his Israeli citizenship to take a position in the U.S. government. Under the Obama administration, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at the U.S. Department of State and as the Iran team chief in the office of the under-secretary of defense for policy.
“The options that were put in front of decision makers then were much more extreme,” he said. “These middle ground options … small careful tactical strikes to set Iran back were never put in front of us. I’d like to know what we can learn from that and what the U.S. can learn from that.”
An advocate of a two-state solution, Goldenberg said he’s “deeply pessimistic” about the direction of Israeli policy toward Palestinians and believes that there will need to be changes in American, Palestinian and Israeli leadership.
“I worry that the Trump administration, by taking such a one-sided approach to the consulate, only made the situation worse,” he said. “I wasn’t against moving the (U.S.) Embassy to Jerusalem, but moving the embassy to Jerusalem was a major political symbol for Israel. You have to do something similar for the Palestinians as well.”
He said the United States has historically acted as a mediator in the Palestinian conflict under past presidential administrations.
“But instead, the Trump administration has taken a very one-sided approach to that, and in doing so, has sent a signal to the far right-wing elements in Israel and the settlers that you can do whatever you want,” he said, adding such steps narrow the options for a two-state solution. “Young Palestinians are saying, ‘I don’t need a Palestinian state. What I do need is a passport, a job, a vote, and I’d like to have that in Palestine but I’ll have it in Israel, too.’ And if that’s the option Israel is left with, you are choosing now between democracy and the Jewish nature of the state of Israel.”
He said the question becomes: “What do you do in the meantime to at least try to maintain that possibility in the future and to keep things from getting worse?”
Goldenberg said there won’t be an immediate answer as to the future of Israel when elections take place Sept. 17. The more telling time will be in November, the deadline for coalitions to be formed. Still, the immediate outcome of the elections could be subject to foreign influence, he said.
“Is Donald Trump going to try to interfere in the elections to help (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu by giving him something?” he asked. “If he supports, for example, annexing settlements in the West Bank as a way to give Bibi a boost, I mean, that would be a terrible outcome.”
While Goldenberg said he is an analyst rather than an advocate, he does carry hopes for the elections.
“I would like to see realistically, probably, a national unity government where Prime Minister Netanyahu is forced over time to step down given that he’s under indictment already,” he said. “Israel hasn’t had a real functioning government since elections were called in January, so I think the most important thing Israel needs is some kind of outcome.”
Based on polls, he said, a decisive victory for any one party is not likely.
“I’m saying what you’re going to have is a no-decision three-way,” he said. “Nothing will be decided on Sept. 17.”