Trump’s Two-State Tap Dance Won’t Last
Despite the president's recent remarks, the two-state solution is still the only path to Middle East peace that serves U.S. interests.
The pursuit of Middle East peace very often resembles not just a roller coaster but a roller coaster that you can never get off — you keep doubling back to visit the same peaks and valleys over and over again. Sometimes, you may even come full circle.
We witnessed one of those moments Wednesday, when the roller coaster seemed to be returning to a point that it hadn’t visited in nearly a decade. At the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to get through their entire joint news conference without committing to the two-state solution.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said. “If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
Longtime Middle East peace junkies can be forgiven for asking: Are we really revisiting whether the two-state solution is our goal?
A little history: U.S. policy has explicitly supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution since President George W. Bush’s speech of June 24, 2002, although it was de facto policy in the latter part of Bill Clinton’s administration as well. The Road Map for Peace in the Middle East of 2003, sponsored by the United States and its Quartet partners (the EU, Russia, and the U.N.), called for an independent Palestinian state in a final status agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had reservations but negotiated on the basis of the road map.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor, went even further in 2008 and offered a final status deal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that explicitly provided a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank.
In 2009, when President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu came into office, the U.S. president had made clear his support for a two-state solution. Netanyahu, however, had not yet endorsed two states — in fact, he had defined his career in opposition to a Palestinian state ever coming into existence. But Netanyahu would soon move closer to Obama’s position: On June 14, he delivered what became known as his Bar-Ilan University speech. In it, he for the first time endorsed the concept of two states for two peoples, in which a “demilitarized Palestinian state” that recognizes Israel “exists alongside the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu has cited his Bar-Ilan speech ever since as his guiding light. And all U.S. and Israeli efforts since then have focused, albeit unsuccessfully, on achieving a two-state solution as the only way to secure U.S. and Israeli interests through an end to the conflict.
Now eight years after Netanyahu first accepted this principle, we seem to be going back to square one. Trump and Netanyahu’s statements at the press conference suggest that the two-state solution, while not off the table, is now only one option. The prime minister dismissed the question as one about “labels” rather than “substance,” while the president made clear the he could live with a peace agreement based on either a two-state or a one-state outcome, as long as both parties agreed.
Why take us back nearly a decade in time and call into question what had seemed a long-settled principle? Did Trump’s remarks Wednesday represent a sea change in U.S. policy?
I don’t buy it. I read the performance at the press conference as a favor from Trump to Netanyahu, a way to help the Israeli prime minister deal with the pressures from his coalition, which is dominated by right-wingers who reject the two-state solution. Before he left Israel for Washington, Netanyahu’s coalition partner and rival, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, warned him that if there were any mention of a Palestinian state on this visit, “the earth will shake.” Now he can return from Washington without a coalition crisis.
Meanwhile, in a tumultuous first month in office, the Israeli-Palestinian question was one of the few areas where Trump displayed a cautious, even responsible streak. Four times since Inauguration Day, including on stage with Netanyahu on Wednesday, Trump has expressed his desire to achieve Middle East peace and his belief that unlimited expansion of Israeli settlements makes that goal harder to achieve. Those statements — coupled with the appointment of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the point person on the issue and Trump’s tapping the brakes on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — strongly suggest that the president cares about the issues and understands the need to avoid combustible steps that can destroy any chance of success.
They also place him squarely in the mainstream of long-standing U.S. policy and may even sow the seeds of a future clash with Netanyahu over settlement construction — which could come as a shock to settlement advocates who rejoiced over his election and even to some of his own advisors.
Indeed, further clarity may not be long in coming. Wednesday’s ambivalence on the two-state solution may help Netanyahu navigate coalition pressures in the short term. But it will be hard to tap dance there for long. Even according to Trump’s own dictum that both sides must agree, Palestinian leaders (like the Israelis) get not just a vote but also a veto. Expect them to exercise it on the one-state option. If they embrace it, it will be Netanyahu who pulls back, aware that it destines Israel to lose its Jewish and democratic character.
Furthermore, Trump and Netanyahu agreed on a regional approach that would seek to warm Israel’s relationships with key Arab states. Israel shares strategic alignment with these states against Iran and the Islamic State, and stronger ties could serve as a precursor and lubricant to renewed Israeli-Palestinians talks. But it will all be for naught if the United States walks away from the two-state solution: As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Kushner will surely hear when they make their first swing through the region’s capitals, the Arabs can’t live with a walk-back on this front. The Arab states may no longer make the Palestinian issue their top priority, and they may even see Israel as a strategic partner. But it misunderstands the role of the Palestinian issue in Arab politics to believe they can afford to be seen as jettisoning support for Palestinian independence.
Lastly, if Trump and Netanyahu go any deeper than Wednesday’s coy winks on two states, then they would have to start spelling out more explicitly what the other options are. They can’t allude to them obliquely forever. While some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners would be thrilled at the prospect, the prime minister’s eight-year record of supporting two states was born of a recognition that every other outcome is worse.
One state in which Palestinians receive citizenship and the vote means Israel will lose its Jewish majority; one state in which they don’t would lead many around the world, and in the country itself, to see Israel as losing its democratic status. Doing nothing leaves the conflict festering for generations in some version of the status quo. The reality of both U.S. and Israeli interests will continue to lead both countries back to trying to craft two states for two peoples and struggling to define the dimensions and sovereignty of the Palestinian state in a way that also guarantees Israel’s security. Netanyahu’s current version, which he calls a “state minus,” will need upgrades to find Palestinian takers, and Palestinians will need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and show more flexibility on security arrangements.
The two-state solution roller coaster may be bumpy, but we’re still on it, so stay buckled up.
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