In diplomatic speak, nothing says “I love you” more than telling a right-wing Israeli leader that perhaps a Palestinian state isn’t necessary after all.
He could have gone for the more traditional type of Valentine’s Day present. There’s nothing wrong with champagne, cigars, roses or even chocolate hearts, but then US President Donald Trump is hardly a run-of-the- mill politician. Touching the third rail of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by appearing to disavow a two-state solution is in keeping with his torch-and-burn attitude to tried and true staples of Washington policies.
Twenty-some years ago, another outlier politician, former US president Bill Clinton, created a new paradigm for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Rose Garden. There, on a bright fall day on the White House lawn, he wed the Israelis and Palestinians to the notion that the only resolution to the conflict is a two-state solution.
The principle of two states for two peoples became such a basic truth that in the conflict’s lexicon, it was defined as synonymous with peace. Those who support peace want a two-state solution and those who don’t oppose it.
Trump edges away from two-state solution (credit: REUTERS)
As Netanyahu left for Washington this week to hold his first meeting with Trump
since the latter’s January 20 inauguration, right-wing Israeli politicians called on him to trash the 25-year-old construct that a Palestinian state is necessary for peace, or even necessary at all.
They demanded that Netanyahu convince the new president to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and to support settlement building in Area C of the West Bank.
“A Palestinian state is a stumbling block to peace,” Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev said in Jerusalem this week.
They were buoyed in their calls by the fact that, since taking office, Trump has not pledged his commitment to a Palestinian state. It was presumed that he was simply waiting for Netanyahu’s arrival, so that the two of them could speak of this together before Trump spoke about it publicly.
Instead, on a cloudy day in a packed White House briefing room, Trump created the first new paradigm for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a quarter of a century and became the first US president to set aside the principles of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Trump did this immediately upon Netanyahu’s arrival, as the two stood near each other at joint podiums, flanked by Israeli and American flags. With a few brief sentences, Trump stated that a two-state solution was not the only option to resolving the conflict.
“I’m looking at two states and one state. I am very happy with the one that both parties like. I thought for a while the twostate might be easier to do, but honestly, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, then I am happy with the one they like the best,” Trump said.
His goal, Trump explained, is peace, and in its pursuit he is not wedded to one solution or the other.
“I would like to see a deal be made,” said Trump. This would not be a deal for a two-state solution, but a deal for peace, with or without a two-state solution. If the creation of a Palestinian state creates peace, then that’s good, but it simply does not need to be the only road to peace.
In a Tuesday briefing to reporters, a White House official expanded briefly on this idea, stating, “Peace is the goal, whether it comes in the form of a two-state solution, if that’s what the parties want, or something else, if that’s what the parties want. We’re going to help them.”
This wouldn’t be just any deal, Trump said on Wednesday, in his characteristic way of speaking. “It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand,” he said. It would not just be a bilateral deal, but would involve other regional players.
“It would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory,” Trump said.
These are countries, of course, that are firm in their stance that a two-state solution is the only alternative.
But Trump’s words do not rule out a twostate solution. Instead, they change the focus and the end goal. His statements neither eliminate nor affirm a Palestinian state, but rather invite a fresh start of sorts.
On the surface, Trump appeared to hand Netanyahu a significant victory. The prime minister could return to Israel and assure his right-wing voters that one of their key demands, the disavowal of a Palestinian state, might be achievable, even if he himself remained committed to it.
But Trump’s new philosophy for ending the conflict, uttered amid a pledge of friendship, also carried with it some words of warning.
His pursuit of what he has called the ultimate deal and peace between Israelis and Palestinians would know no bounds, such that he would entertain a non-ethnic nationalist solution, otherwise known as a one-state solution, or a state for all of its citizens.
In his heart, he might agree that the US Embassy belongs in Jerusalem and not Tel Aviv, or that Jews should build in the West Bank, their biblical heartland. But Trump’s guiding principle here will not be personal conviction, but rather his understanding of what is and what is not helpful for a renewed peace process.
Settlement activity at first blush appears to him, as it has to past US presidents, to have a negative impact on peacemaking. In the long run, Israel might be able to build and expand settlements, but in the short term, Netanyahu is back where he was, with a US president who wants him to hold off on such construction even if it comes with a promise that something will be worked out.
“As with any successful negotiation, both sides will have to make compromises. You know that, right?” Trump asked Netanyahu.
So it was that Netanyahu later told Israeli reporters that the issue of West Bank settlements is still under discussion. He neither affirmed that building would continue nor that new plans would be frozen, only that one must proceed cautiously with respect for a new president.
Once back in Israel, he will remain the embattled right-wing leader. At odds with his voter base, he will need to fend off a rising political tide in favor of annexation and a building boom in the settlements with a series of smoke and mirror gestures.