It would be difficult for a US president like Donald Trump, enamored with the rights of sovereign nations, to philosophically oppose the Palestinian right to statehood.
His “sovereignty trumps concept” is a significant cornerstone of the world order he has spoken of in addresses to the United Nations General Assembly’s opening sessions both in 2017 and in 2018.
But he was slow to publicly link his role as the potential US mediator of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process with that of larger geo-political paradigm.
“I am a facilitator,” Trump told reporters in New York late Wednesday afternoon when discussing the conflict.
“I want to see if I can get a deal done so people do not get killed anymore,” he said.
Within that framework the best option is the one that both parties want.
So it was that in February 2017, he upended almost 25 years of US foreign policy based on a two-state solution by announcing, “I am looking at two-state
and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”
He expanded on that declaration Wednesday, when in a similar fashion, he stated: “Bottom line: If the Israelis and the Palestinians want one state
, that is OK with me. If they want two states, that is OK with me. I am happy if they are happy.”
But in the intervening 17 months, he developed his own opinion of what would work best in this situation: Palestinian statehood.
So, when he was quizzed by a reporter during his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UNGA, he made his first public endorsement of two states – and as a de facto consequence a Palestinian state – noting that this was the outcome he would like.
And he continued to endorse that idea later in the day, hinting that absent any alternative joint ideas from the parties, this was the path he will likely pursue when he unveils the details of his peace plan, possibly later this year.
“I think the two-state [resolution] will happen,” Trump said. “In one way it is way more difficult because it is a real-estate deal. It is a little tougher deal.”
“But in another way it works better because you have people governing themselves,” Trump said, linking Palestinian statehood with his sovereignty doctrine.
Pundits who heard him speak, however, immediately focused on his reference to one state, as if he had made some dramatic flip-flop away from two states.
Former US ambassador to the Israel Daniel Shapiro tweeted, “Now we’re back to two-state, one-state, whatevs [whatever]. As you were.”
But the phrase “two states” – said for the first time by this US president – is not the type of thing one stuffs back in the box like a jumping jack that can pop back up when convenient.
Trump himself noted that the words had gravity.
“I think it will be a two-state. By saying that, I put it out there. If you ask most of the people in Israel, they agree with that, but no one wanted to say it. It is a big thing to put out [there].”
For the Palestinians, his words were very little and very late, in spite of Trump’s optimism that they will join his peace process.
Netanyahu told reporters that it was the definition of statehood that mattered and that he had underscored the significance of the understanding accepted by past administrations of a demilitarized state.
But a US president who speaks of two states throws a monkey wrench in the strengthening Israeli right-wing political drive to discard all vestiges of a two-state solution, and certainly not one that would come to play in the West Bank.
They have been open about their desire to annex Area C to Israel and to erase all vestiges to the Green Line, by normalizing life for Israelis in the West Bank.
Before Trump spoke, they could interpret his silence as support. Now it will be harder for them to make their case.
Trump’s words, as vague as they were, place pressure on Netanyahu to continue to speak of two states, precisely at a time when he will need to cater to his right-wing base as he heads toward the mandated November 2019 election.
MK Bezalel Smotrich, one of the politicians leading the charge to bury the Palestinian state who never even uses the word, said that Trump’s understanding of the dangers of terrorism would make it hard for him to support such a state, which could become a hostile terrorist entity.
But he also noted that the situation, post-Trump’s comments, poses a challenge to Netanyahu.
The swing of the Trump Administration’s pendulum every so slightly on the path of the more tried and true two-state option also place the premier – not unlike that experienced by his Likud predecessor Ariel Sharon – to come up with a counter plan, that preserves Israel’s interests.