Shadow Government

Dear Democrats: Don’t Let Trump Kill the Two-State Solution

Here’s how the new Congress should buy time for Israeli-Palestinian peace under the next president.

A supporter of the Fatah movement carries a banner depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a rally in Nablus, the West Bank, on Jan. 3. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)
A supporter of the Fatah movement carries a banner depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a rally in Nablus, the West Bank, on Jan. 3. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

The newly elected Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the party’s growing slate of 2020 presidential candidates, might be hesitant to spend any of their limited time and energy addressing the seemingly hopeless Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a vast universe of problems, including the ongoing U.S. government shutdown, it’s not likely to make the top of anyone’s list of policy priorities. But Democrats shouldn’t give up on it just yet.

True, prospects for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, much less any kind of agreement, are at a low ebb.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas do not trust each other at all. Netanyahu is embroiled in Israel’s upcoming election and in corruption investigations that will likely lead to his indictment later this year. Both require him to attend closely to his right-wing base, which openly opposes a two-state solution and whose support he needs to survive in power.

Meanwhile, Abbas is in the closing chapter of his political career, focused on his legacy and unwilling to challenge long-standing Palestinian dogmas by telling hard truths to his people. And Hamas, a terrorist organization that rejects Israel’s existence within any borders, stubbornly clings to power in Gaza, prioritizing tunnel building and rocket attacks against Israel over the well-being of Gazans.

The Trump administration has done little to help matters, as well as considerable harm. For two years, President Donald Trump has refused to specify whether the solution he envisions involves two states, fueling rejectionists on both sides. Waiting for Trump to present his peace plan has been interminable. Trump was correct to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy to a location in West Jerusalem, which has always been part of Israel and would remain so in any conceivable two-state map. But the move included zero recognition of Palestinian aspirations to have a capital in East Jerusalem and thus led to a total cessation of contact between the PA and the Trump administration.

Partly in response to Palestinian snubs, Trump deepened the breach by closing the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington; canceling, one by one, every form of U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians; and signing the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), which has caused the PA to refuse all U.S. assistance to avoid being subject to jurisdiction in U.S. courts. That refusal includes funds to train the PA’s effective security forces, which partner with Israel to combat terrorism in the West Bank.

Understandably, Democratic members of Congress and presidential candidates might look at this depressing tableau and conclude that there is nothing to be done. They should not. In fact, there are several courses of action they should take to help keep the two-state solution from total collapse.

While a few voices within the party have issued misguided calls for punitive measures against Israel, the vast majority of Democrats continue to support long-standing (and upgraded, in an agreement signed by former President Barack Obama) military assistance to Israel and firm backing for Israel against any challenge to its legitimacy. They also recognize that the failure to bring about a two-state solution that meets Israelis’ and Palestinians’ legitimate needs will put at risk Israel’s Jewish and democratic character and, over time, harm the U.S.-Israel relationship to the detriment of both countries.

With these imperatives still very much at stake but with no prospects for progress until leadership changes occur on the Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. sides, the Democrats’ focus should be on steps that can help keep the two-state solution alive, including reversing Trump’s missteps that hurt that goal. These are the steps for which they should advocate—not to achieve a two-state solution now but to maintain its viability for the future:

First, restore key assistance programs to Palestinians. Some of these have been canceled, consistent with a U.S. law that withholds funds to the PA over the payments it makes to Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons. But many cuts go well beyond the requirements of this law, targeting programs not controlled by the PA, such as aid to East Jerusalem hospitals, food aid for Palestinians in Gaza, and programs to improve West Bank infrastructure and enhance the Palestinian private sector. These cuts cause needless suffering among ordinary Palestinians, impede Palestinian economic and institutional development necessary for statehood, and contribute to security tensions. Far from opposing the funding, Israeli security officials have never wavered in their support for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) projects in the West Bank, arguing that they contribute to a calm that has benefitted both Palestinians and Israelis.

Second, keep the USAID mission open. Trump’s indiscriminate cuts will lead to wholesale layoffs this year of the staff of the USAID mission for the West Bank and Gaza. This team of experienced professionals has done wonders in difficult circumstances to advance U.S. interests. If they are dispersed, the next administration will have to reassemble them at great, unnecessary cost.

Third, amend the ATCA to provide the U.S. president with waiver authority to exempt key partners. Because of the law, the PA is refusing $35 million of International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement assistance to train its security forces. This long-running program has the full support of Israeli security officials, who see their PA counterparts as professional partners in fighting terrorism. Its cancellation could doom a vital area of cooperation.

Fourth, make clear that the next Democratic administration will adjust key Trump administration stands. Specifically, Democrats should commit to the following: While a Democratic administration would keep the U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, the United States would also speak openly about its expectation that any two-state solution include two capitals in a unified city, with a U.S. embassy to the State of Palestine in Arab East Jerusalem. (The precise borders of such an arrangement would need to be negotiated and would need to include Israeli control at key holy sites.) In order to harmonize the U.S. diplomatic posture with the goal of two states, a Democratic administration will re-establish a U.S. consulate general, which conducts diplomacy with the Palestinians, as a separate mission from the U.S. Embassy to Israel, reversing Trump’s merger of the two missions.

Finally, Democrats should speak clearly now about the obligations of both sides to keep a two-state solution viable. That means calling on Palestinian leaders to end incitement and glorification of violence, including payments to terrorists. It also means calling on Israel to end construction in West Bank settlements that cannot be accommodated in reasonable territorial swaps with a new Palestinian state. In addition, Arab states should be encouraged to take additional steps toward normalization with Israel and provide economic assistance to the PA and support for its adoption of realistic expectations for a final status agreement.

This agenda will not end the conflict in the next two years or even in the longer term. But it can help maintain structures that support the eventual establishment of two states, prevent further deterioration, and reset expectations for the U.S. approach after Trump. If all it does is help buy time until different leaders emerge, keeping the two-state solution from going over the cliff, that would be enough.

Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and senior director for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration’s National Security Council. @DanielBShapiro

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