An American president on Wednesday told the world he really does not mind if there is only a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River — a development that would represent the collapse of Zionism, of a Jewish, democratic state for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. And an Israeli prime minister, standing alongside him, chuckled heartily.
At a press conference full of mutual compliments, repeated handshakes and praise for their respective nations, peoples and wives, Donald Trump characteristically spoke of his ambition to seal a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Also true to form, he made clear that he wasn’t familiar with the details, and wasn’t about to familiarize himself, either. Asked by an Israeli reporter if he sought to broker a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president responded lightly: “So, I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said, as Netanyahu broke into laughter.
“I’m very happy with the one that both parties like,” Trump repeated. “I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
Well, maybe Donald Trump “can live with either one.”
But Benjamin Netanyahu knows he can’t. Yet Israel’s prime minister, who vowed barely a year ago to ensure that “Israel will not be a binational state,” chose not to challenge the cheerful president. He responded by cracking a tired old joke about Israelis having many opinions. He chose not to point out that because there are almost as many non-Jews as Jews between the river and sea, the establishment of a single sovereign entity in Israel and the disputed territories, a single state of Jews and Arabs, necessarily spells the end of either a Jewish majority Israel, or a democratic Israel, or both.
Trump may not be particularly bothered, but Netanyahu needed to be. And yet he chuckled as Trump made those comments, and then spent the rest of their joint press conference performing verbal acrobatics to avoid saying the words “two-state solution” himself.
Instead, Netanyahu repeatedly reiterated his demands that Israel maintain overall security control between the river and the sea, and that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state — even as the president set out a potential formula that would put an end to Jewish statehood.
It took decades before the Palestinian leadership began to even pay lip service to the idea of accepting a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, rather than demanding all of mandatory Palestine. Many, probably most Israelis share Netanyahu’s belief that the Palestinians have still not truly come to terms with the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, with the legitimacy of our revived Jewish sovereignty in the only place on earth where the Jewish nation has ever sought and achieved independence. Many, probably most Israelis also back Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition of any peace accord. And many Israelis support that other key prime ministerial demand, for overall security control in the West Bank, to ensure that Palestinian independence not be abused to harm Israel — to ensure, as he put it on Wednesday, that another Islamist dictatorial entity not arise there.
But if the non-expert Trump — undermining Netanyahu by demanding a settlement halt one minute (“I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit”), and then undermining Zionism by talking of a one-state solution the next — doesn’t appreciate the necessity of some variant of a two-state solution, it was incumbent upon Netanyahu to highlight the imperative.
The prime minister could have reiterated his oft-stated conviction that the Palestinians will have to make do with something less than full sovereignty. He could have repeated his call for a demilitarized Palestinian entity. “What I’m willing to give the Palestinians,” the prime minister reportedly told his cabinet colleagues just three weeks ago, “is not exactly a state with full authority, rather a state minus.”
But he chose not to say that on Wednesday at the White House. He chose to play into the hands of Palestinian rejectionists — and of those Israelis who would sacrifice democracy for the sake of sovereignty across the biblical Judea and Samaria, who apparently don’t mind being entangled forever among millions of hostile Palestinians, and/or who prefer to delude themselves by claiming that there aren’t actually all that many Palestinians.
Netanyahu probably bought himself a little time with his hardline coalition partners. (Naftali Bennett, for instance, had threatened “an earthquake” if either Netanyahu or Trump endorsed a two-state solution.) But he failed the Jewish nation, whose state was revived in 1948 on the basis of the two-state solution.
There was much of substantive interest in the two leaders’ first press conference. Mutual compliments apart, Trump sought to compensate for the omission of Jews from his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, expressed welcome praise for Israel’s resilience, pledged to stand by Israel in skewed global forums, and voiced a determination to tackle the Iranian nuclear threat.
Both men spoke at length about the ostensible opportunity to achieve a great, big regional peace deal between Israel and much of the wider Arab world, in turn pushing the Palestinians toward compromise. This is a possibility Netanyahu has been asserting for years, facilitated, he believes, by the common concern over Iran among the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Gulf states.
There was more laughter when Netanyahu failed to respond with what Trump thought was sufficient enthusiasm to his optimistic talk of such an accord being possible. An understated response? “That’s the art of the deal,” quipped Netanyahu, sycophantically.
Plainly Netanyahu was enjoying himself. For Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister, Wednesday marked his first White House meeting this term with a Republican president, and he was able to articulate many of his most fervently held beliefs and concerns without fear of contradiction: He spoke of the need to tackle radical Islamic terrorism; stressed the Iranians’ overt efforts to destroy Israel, as evidenced by the threats they inscribe in Hebrew on their missiles; argued that the Palestinians continue to educate their people to seek Israel’s demise. “If anyone believes that I, as prime minister of Israel, responsible for the security of my country, would blindly walk into a Palestinian terror state that seeks the destruction of my country, they’re gravely mistaken,” he said powerfully at one point.
He also said that “the source of the conflict” is “the persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any boundary.” And yet, by allowing Trump’s talk of a possible single entity between river and sea to pass without contradiction, Netanyahu himself dealt a stinging, public blow to the Israel we are living in today. For if our prime minister is unwilling to speak up, loudly and clearly, in defense of a Jewish, democratic Israel within internationally recognized borders, who else will? Certainly not President Donald Trump.