A commitment to the Bush-Sharon understandings of 2004 and the notion of two states for two peoples as a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict appears to be one of the likely outcomes of the upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump, current and former government officials and diplomats have said.
But even if such sentiments should be voiced during and after the meeting, officials say it is likely that Netanyahu will seek interim measures alone toward such a goal, given the instability of the region, the volatility and lack of unity in the Palestinian body politic itself, and the lack of trust the government has in the Palestinian leadership.
Such an outcome would come as a severe disappointment to the right-wing, given its earlier expectations from Trump. The prime minister would likely refrain from speaking explicitly about two states to avoid a backlash from Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett and the right wing of the Likud Party.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office MK Michael Oren of Kulanu said he believes that Netanyahu could reach understandings with the Trump administration for building inside the major settlement blocs, and even allowing for natural growth outside the settlement blocs.
In addition, Oren said the prime minister would have to insist on the explicit formula of two states for two peoples if Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is part of the agreement.
“The prime minister is interested in exploring interim measures; he doesn’t want to have an interim Jewish state that eventually becomes a Palestinian state, which is what the Palestinians want,” continued Oren.
“[Former president Barak] Obama refused to discuss interim agreements and so we had no progress. We can make progress, but we need in the US a partner that is willing to think creatively.”
Netanyahu pledges to promote responsible policies when he meets with Trump (credit: REUTERS)
The deputy minister said he would “not be surprised” if Trump suggests a return to the parameters of the Bush-Sharon exchange of letters in 2004, when Bush reiterated that the US was committed to the creation of “a viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent” state, but accepted that “in light of new realities on the ground,” Israel would not return to the armistice lines of 1949.
Oren noted, however, that it would be politically difficult for Netanyahu to embrace such a stance, because of the opposition to a two-state solution among many members of his own party, as well as that of Bayit Yehudi and the recent clamor for the unilateral annexation of Area C of Judea and Samaria.
Former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who is currently in the US and has held meetings of late with officials in the White House and in Congress, said that he believes it is “very clear” that Trump wants to make a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
“If Trump wants a deal that means compromises on all sides. He’s a deal maker, so that means Israel will not get everything it wants,” said Ayalon, who is currently a visiting professor at Yeshiva University and the founder and director of the Truth About Israel advocacy group.
“The only consequence of Trump’s desire to make a deal can be support for a two-state deal, and I would not be surprised if Trump himself talks of the two states for two peoples formula,” he told the Post.
Ayalon added that he does not believe the new US president would accept Israeli annexations of Area C.
“What we can hope for realistically is something along the lines of the Sharon and Bush understandings, keeping the major settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion, Ariel and the settlements around Jerusalem; not enlarging them, but building within them.”
He added that the concept of “defensible borders” for Israel – which was mentioned explicitly in the Bush letter, and a requirement that any future Palestinian state be demilitarized, as well as the need for an Israeli military presence in the Jordan valley – may also feature in Netanyahu’s discussions with Trump.
But in a change from the Obama administration, Ayalon said he expects Trump and his administration to restore the situation in which there is “no daylight” between Israel and the Palestinians, rhetorically and in terms of policy.
Such a stance would make it harder for the Palestinians to refuse negotiations with Israel as they did almost throughout Obama’s two presidential terms, said Ayalon.
He mentioned as well that the Trump administration is much less likely to tolerate the diplomatic warfare of the Palestinians in the UN, a stance that has already been evident in the actions of new US Ambassador to the UN Nikkey Hadley.
In exchange for this more supportive position though, Ayalon said that Trump would likely seek Netanyahu’s commitment, either in public or private, to a two-state solution, although he noted that the president “understands the prime minister’s “political position” and the challenge he is facing from Bennett and the hard-line figures from the Likud’s right.
He added though that, due to “the intransigence of the Palestinians, their radical approach which includes Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]” and the “likelihood” that a Palestinian state could quickly become a failed state rife with terrorism, Netanyahu is unlikely to make major long-term decisions any time soon.
Regarding Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, Ayalon said that Trump will likely be much more willing to “hold Tehran’s feet to the fire” when it comes to enforcing the strict letter of the agreement.
He said, however, that the Trump administration would walk away from the deal, but might be willing to impose stricter sanctions on Tehran for violations over its ballistic missile program.
Oren said that Netanyahu would be looking for Trump to continue his tough stance against Iran and “tie in the nuclear deal and Iranian behavior,” in terms of the regime’s support for terrorist groups around the Middle East.
The deputy minister added that the prime minister would also likely try and get the Trump administration to “exact a price” for Tehran’s ongoing support for terrorist groups, and also seek to keep Iran and its various agencies and armed proxies out of Syria as far as possible.
Dennis Ross, the former US Middle East envoy in the Clinton administration, largely echoed Oren and Ayalon’s sentiments regarding both Iran and the conflict with the Palestinians.
Speaking in a telephone press conference organized by The Israel Project, Ross said that Netanyahu would focus heavily on these concerns regarding Iran, but would not demand that Trump scrap the JCPA deal.
“Netanyahu wants more done to deter Iranians, and renegotiate the end point at year 15 of the deal, which allows Iran to create as large a nuclear infrastructure as they want which will make them a nuclear threshold state,” said Ross.
“The prime minister wants the administration to revisit this end point, if not make it clear that if Iran weaponizes, it will be faced with a military response by the US.”
He said, however, that he does not expect the Trump administration to do anything concrete regarding Iran in the short term, although Trump would likely make strong comments about Iranian aggression while standing next to Netanyahu.
Ross added that he expects Iran to try and test Trump’s resolve in strict enforcement some time soon, as well as possible further sanctions on Tehran from Congress.
Regarding the conflict with the Palestinians, Ross said, like Oren and Ayalon, that it is very possible “we are going to see a resurrection of the Bush-Sharon letter,” in terms of supporting existing settlement blocs.
“That’s a significant issue to re-establish in light of UN Security Council resolution 2334, which created the 1967 lines as a default position, but there will be limitations outside those blocs.”