US policy unmoored

President Trump’s casual comments signaling a pullback from the two-state solution threaten a one-state outcome.

President Donald Trump (R) greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference at the White House.  (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
President Donald Trump (R) greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference at the White House.
IT WAS another day in “Trump World,” a brief off-the-cuff comment from the man who is now president of the United States that threw an entire region into turmoil trying to figure out what he meant.
At his joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 15, President Donald Trump casually tossed out a comment that seemed to signal that the United States was pulling back its support for a two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like. I can live with either one,” the president said, adding that he was going to try to get the parties to make a deal that would be bigger and better than anyone could possibly imagine.
Adding to the confusion, the next day, the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that the United States continues to support the two-state outcome but was also “thinking outside of the box.”
As former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer remarked, “Typically such a change in policy would take place after careful reflection, realistic assessment and developed strategy, which would have concluded that the only option for peace is the two-state solution.” That was before Trump. Now, years of bipartisan policy consensus can be jettisoned with a single sentence or tweet.
The evidence of Trump’s chaotic first month in office suggests that we no longer live in a world where US foreign policy will be carefully weighed and applied consistently. Instead, we are likely to see endless turf wars and internal conflicts within the administration by top officials vying for Trump’s ear. When a president has no fixed ideas and little knowledge, everything is up for grabs every day.
And having made a policy pronouncement, there is no certainty that the president might not change his mind at 4 a.m. the next morning – and send out a tweet to inform the world that he has done so. Often, he doesn’t make policy at all. He just throws out words – usually designed to bolster his already gargantuan self-regard.
If there is one underlying principle behind the Trump way of governing, it is the doctrine of self-gratification. All others, whether they be Israelis, Palestinians, Russians, Mexicans, or Australians, must fall into line behind that governing idea.
Following Trump’s words, the United States no longer has a clear policy on how Israelis and Palestinians should make peace – just Trump’s bottomless confidence in his own abilities as a deal-maker.
He’s been very successful in building hotels and opening golf courses. We will see if these same skills translate into ending a century- long conflict. We shall see also if the negotiations can succeed when there is no longer any underlying shared understanding on what the end goal ought to look like.
Although Trump’s statement could be dismissed as meaningless, it was actually terrifying – because it opens the way to a one-state outcome, which threatens Israel’s democracy and its identity as a Jewish homeland. The danger is that Palestinians will now abandon any hope of ever achieving independence and transfer all their efforts into a demand for full civil and political rights within the State of Israel – which would then lose its Jewish majority and cease to be Israel. If the international community also gives up on a two-state solution, it will certainly join in these calls and start to place increasing pressure on Israel to respond.
Trump’s statement was good for extremists on both sides – Israeli settlers who want to rule all the land and Palestinian rejectionists, like Hamas, who want to destroy Israel. Both were encouraged to see a weakening of the two-state solution, which they loathe, and their own maximalist agendas strengthened.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, for his own narrow political reasons, may have been pleased by what transpired. True, the president asked him to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” and did not commit to moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Still, Netanyahu may believe he can look forward to four years without any serious US pressure on him to do anything in particular.
That is a narrow and shortsighted view. What Trump did was to remove the anchor that has steadied and stabilized US policy toward the region for a quarter century. Without that anchor, US policy has become unmoored, and Israelis and Palestinians now risk drifting into ever stormier waters.
Alan Elsner is special adviser to the president of J Street.