President Donald Trump took his long-running battle against political correctness to his White House press conference with visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
There, with the cameras whirring and the world watching, Trump ditched the glib, politically correct catchphrase everyone throws around as the magic solution for the Mideast: the two-state solution.
In the most significant line from the 30-minute press conference, before Trump and Netanyahu met for the first time since the president’s inauguration, Trump – asked whether he was giving up on the idea of two states – replied: “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
In other words, what the businessman-turned-president essentially said was, “I’m not married to any formula; whatever works for you guys, works for me. Go figure it out.” His subtext: Negotiate.
The Israeli Right was jubilant, interpreting this to mean that the idea of ever having to create a Palestinian state in the biblical heartland of the Jewish people was put to rest.
And the Left, both in Israel and abroad, was aghast.
For on the Left, and for much of the international community, the “two-state solution” has become dogma that must be accepted, because it is the only way.
Never mind that people throw the term around, without knowing exactly what it means, or without dealing with pesky little issues such as Gaza, and how there could be a unified Palestinian state with Hamas in control of Gaza.
Never mind, as well, that almost 25 years after the Oslo process, all attempts to forge an agreement based on two-states have failed. Never mind any of that, for – as former US secretary of state John Kerry determined in his 70-minute swan song speech on the Israeli-Palestinian situation – it’s either two states or apartheid Israel.
Netanyahu and Trump meet for first time in Washington at joint White House press conference on Feb. 15, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)
“The two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” he asserted. “It is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace and security with its neighbors.”
But who says? Maybe there are other solutions out there, perhaps interim, perhaps even far from perfect but better than what exists now. These could range from limited statehood to a revision of some kind of federation with Jordan. But all these ideas were always summarily dismissed by the Obama administration with a cavalier phrase: “The Palestinians will never accept it.”
Well, they are certainly not going to accept it if the leaders of the world say “the Palestinians will never accept it.” It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But if – in light of the fact that the two-state option hasn’t worked – the leaders of the world would begin to open up a bit to other ideas, the Palestinians might realize they will not succeed in their current aim of trying to get the world to foist this so-far unworkable solution on Israel.
Trump, in his comments, was not – as some may interpret – advocating one state, but, rather, was saying to both sides: “Do what you want, just find something that works.”
As former ambassador to the US Michael Oren put it, for the last eight years there was a president in the White House for whom the two- state solution was the only solution. Nevertheless, the Palestinians never availed themselves of that situation and refused to negotiate with Israel over the terms of that paradigm.
According to Oren, what Trump and Netanyahu said on Wednesday was that the two-state solution is not possible now, and as a result there is a need to search for other, more workable solutions. Obama and Kerry choked out those solutions by saying that nothing other than what they proposed would work. As Oren said, “there was a tremendous amount of ideological rigidity that did not allow for any creative thinking.”
With one seemingly flippant comment, Trump cast that ideological rigidity aside and opened the door to other ideas.
And, Oren maintained, there are alternative solutions.
“They may not be ideal solutions, but they are solutions that would involve interim measures and recognition of the fact that there might be a two-state reality on the ground that might not conform to what we know as a two state-solution, but [which] would enable the Palestinians to lead their lives in prosperity and security and also redound to Israel’s benefit.”
THE TWO-STATE orthodoxy is not the only dogma that Trump dispelled. He also took issue with the previous administration’s summary rejection of an idea long touted by Netanyahu: widening the tent, bringing other regional countries into the picture that may bring to the table different bargaining chips which may make reaching an agreement with the Palestinians easier.
The idea is simple, and one Netanyahu has been advocating for years. Israel and key pragmatic players in the region – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates – share the common threats of Iran and radical Islamic terrorism, and as such are already cooperating to an unprecedented degree. Because these Arab countries want to enhance intelligence and security cooperation with Israel, they may be willing to nudge the Palestinians to show some greater degree of flexibility than they have been willing to demonstrate up until now.
Conversely, they may also be willing to give Israel something that would make it easier for Jerusalem to grant far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.
Oren, for instance, said this could take the form of perhaps recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights in exchange for an Israeli pledge to limit building in the West Bank to the large settlement blocs. This regional idea has been discussed for years by Netanyahu, but too easily dismissed by the Obama administration as unworkable, unrealistic or wishful thinking.
Kerry, for instance, said in his December speech that no one would agree to this, unless there was “meaningful progress towards the two-state solution.”
But saying this is something the Arab world would never agree to ensures that, indeed, it won’t agree to it. However, what if the US were to actively promote the idea and encourage its allies to do the same? The pragmatic states in the Arab world have a keen interest now in forging a strong relationship with the Trump administration.
Might not this be leveraged? Rather than shoot down the regional idea as unworkable, Trump called it “a terrific thing” and said that “we have some pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this.”
In other words, the idea is worth a shot.
And he said it is an idea that may also bring out more flexibility from Israel since “you have a lot bigger canvas to play with.”
Given that Trump embraced an idea that Netanyahu has been pushing for several years, without much enthusiasm from Washington, and given that he stepped away from that camp that has said a two-state solution is the only viable option, it was no surprise that the prime minister told reporters following the meeting with the new president: “I have met during my life not a few presidents since I began coming to this city 35 years ago. I am saying to you with certainty, since then we have not had a bigger friend than President Trump.”
Or, as he said at the press conference, “I’ve known the president and I’ve known his family and his team for a long time, and there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump.”
This is a comment that will rub many US Jews the wrong way, especially since only some 25% voted for Trump, and many are adamantly opposed to his domestic policies.
But Trump did something that Obama found very, very difficult to do: He hit all the notes in his brief remarks that Israelis wait to hear a US president say when talking about their country. He evinced empathy, he told them he loves Israel special, not just that he likes it as he likes Sweden.
Trump stressed that the countries are allies with shared values; he praised Israel for its resilience in the face of oppression; he alluded to the Holocaust and the tortuous history of the Jews; he noted the country’s enormous security challenges; called out Iran; noted Jerusalem’s importance in the fight against terrorism; and recognized that Israel has been treated very unfairly in the United Nations.
When a president hits all those buttons, it is easier then to hear him say, as he also did, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit; we’ll work something out.”
Or, as tweeted by Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies: “For the last 8 years, Bibi and Obama both insisted good friends could disagree. But they weren’t convincing. Trump & Bibi were convincing.”