How does Trump intend to square the Israeli-Palestinian circle?
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Analysis

How does Trump intend to square the Israeli-Palestinian circle?

The president wants to broker a peace deal, but has not endorsed a two-state, one-state or any other framework. Netanyahu relishes this ambiguity, but at some point US leader will have to make decisions

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

On March 18, famed US-Jewish lawyer and pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz randomly met US President Donald Trump in a restaurant at his Florida Mar-a-Lago club.

The two men discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Dershowitz — a lifelong Democrat — later said he was surprised by US President Donald Trump’s knowledge of the thorny core issues: Jerusalem, refugees, security.

“He was anxious to convey the message that he really wanted to have a peace agreement,” Dershowitz told Army Radio in an interview aired Thursday.

The president was “clearly” talking about a two-state solution, Dershowitz stressed, adding that at no time did Trump give him the impression that a unitary state was even being considered.

And yet, as of this writing, the Trump administration has not publicly endorsed the goal of Palestinian statehood or even the notion of “two states for two peoples.” On the other hand, it has also never backed a one-state solution or given any indication that it would sanction Israeli annexation even of parts of the West Bank. And Trump has expressed concerns over Israeli settlement expansion — “Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left… I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace,” he said last month — which can only be explained by the desire to safeguard the feasibility of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank.

The new US administration really wants to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. It believes a peace agreement is “not only possible, but would reverberate positively throughout the region and the world,” as Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for international negotiations, said Wednesday night, after having attended the Arab League summit in Jordan.

The will is clearly there. And as Greenblatt’s travels to the region and his meetings with virtually all stakeholders — Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and advocates for the settler movement, yeshiva students in Jerusalem’s Old City and Palestinian civilians from Gaza and the West Bank, and top officials from the Gulf and Europe — have made plain, the White House is willing to make a genuine effort to seal the coveted deal.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at Abbas's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (WAFA)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president’s assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at Abbas’s office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (WAFA)

But what’s blatantly missing, so far, is any discernible policy that might produce a breakthrough. How exactly does Trump intend to succeed where so many others failed, when he hasn’t even said whether an independent Palestinian state is part of the equation?

That is the fundamental disconnect, thus far, at the heart of the Trump’s administration’s nascent stance. On the one hand, the administration evidently wishes for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate and then sign a historic peace treaty. The White House invite to Abbas and Greenblatt’s contacts with Arab leaders gave the Palestinians reasons to believe that Trump does not intend to sideline them.

Yet, the new administration makes almost unconditional support for Israel a central theme of its foreign policy.

Trump appointed a staunch supporter of the settlements, David Friedman, to be his ambassador in Israel. His vice president, Mike Pence, said Sunday that his boss is still seriously considering moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And his envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, dedicates much of her work to opposing anti-Israel bias. She prides herself on having blocked the appointment of arguably the most respected Palestinian politician, ex-prime minister Salam Fayyad, to a senior post at the UN, declaring that “until the Palestinians come to the table” to negotiate with Israel, “there are no freebies for the Palestinian Authority any more.”

This staunch backing of Israel apparently also extends to respecting Netanyahu’s wish not to publicly endorse a two-state solution.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley acknowledges the applause as she arrives to speak at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, March 27, 2017 (AIPAC screenshot)
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley acknowledges the applause as she arrives to speak at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, March 27, 2017 (AIPAC screenshot)

Reaching Israeli-Palestinian peace is a quixotic undertaking even with the most clearly defined objectives. The administration’s refusal to publicly embrace or reject the idea of Palestinian statehood will not make it easier.

Officially, the White House seeks “tangible progress toward advancing Middle East peace” that would lead to a “comprehensive agreement” between Israelis and Palestinians.

Washington and Israel have so far failed to reach an agreement, or even “understandings” regarding the scope of Israeli settlement expansions. But disagreements over where and how much Israelis may build will pale in comparison to the much larger question of what Trump envisions as constituting an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Since his February 15 press conference with Netanyahu, during which Trump said he would support any solution the two parties could agree on — ostensibly backing off from Palestinian statehood — much of the world has unequivocally reiterated the view that the only way to achieve peace is a two-state solution.

“We firmly believe that the two-state solution remains the only realistic way to end the conflict and all claims,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said Wednesday at the Arab League summit. “We will continue to work for the unity of the entire international community to this aim, including with our American friends, as we have started to do in these days.”

At their meeting near the Dead Sea, the entire Arab League, including the Palestinians, re-endorsed the two-state solution as the only viable means to achieve peace.

Trump is of course not bound by what the Arabs and the Europeans want. But if his administration were to propose an alternative paradigm, it would have a lot of convincing to do.

Twenty one kings, presidents and top officials from the Arab League summit pose for a group photo, at a gathering near the Dead Sea in Jordan on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (AP Photo/ Raad Adayleh)
Twenty-one kings, presidents and top officials from the Arab League summit pose for a group photo, at a gathering near the Dead Sea in Jordan on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (AP Photo/ Raad Adayleh)

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has painstakingly avoided any reference to Palestinian statehood. At the same time, he insists that his policy vis-a-vis the matter has not changed at all. Therefore, his refusal to utter the words “two-state solution” should be seen more as a nod to his nationalistic coalition partners — who oppose the idea on ideological grounds — and less as a renunciation of his general endorsement of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.

For the prime minister, who is currently busy fending off corruption charges, and anyway doesn’t believe a peace agreement with the current Palestinian leadership is possible, this deliberate ambiguity works perfectly well.

But if Trump is really serious about clinching the ultimate deal, he will have to transcend the vague rhetoric about wanting peace, and make some basic, concrete policy decisions.

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