WASHINGTON — Theodor Herzl, the founding father of political Zionism, famously said of a revived Jewish homeland, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Nearly 70 years after Herzl’s vision became a reality with the founding of the State of Israel, Donald Trump on Wednesday said that, if you will it, the Jewish state can be turned into a binational Jewish-Arab state. Whatever you guys want.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” the American president said at a press conference in the White House, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood alongside him, chuckling. “I can live with either one.”
Delivered in a remarkably nonchalant manner, Trump’s was a dramatic statement that appeared to upend decades of US foreign policy. In Israel, right-wingers cheered and left-wingers lamented what sounded like a death knell for the two-state solution.
But the truth is that while Palestinian aspirations for an independent state took a hit on Wednesday, it isn’t time to bury the two-state solution just yet. It may have been deep-frozen. But if and when the current circumstances change, it can be resuscitated, at Israeli and Palestinian discretion. It’s diplomatic cryonics, Middle East-style.
During a press briefing following his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu was asked if the two-state solution is dead. He refused to provide a clear answer, merely asserting that his prerequisites for a deal have not changed: The Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state and agree to the IDF retaining ultimate security control over the West Bank.
While he made plain that a Palestinian state will not come about anytime soon, and asserted, therefore, that there is currently no point in talking about a two-state solution, he also said something that received little media attention but sheds some light on what he has in mind for the future of the West Bank: “I don’t want to annex close to 2.5 millions Palestinians to Israel. I do not want them to be our subjects.”
During this week’s visit to Washington, Netanyahu painstakingly avoided uttering the phrases “two-state solution” or “Palestinian statehood.” He did so mainly to curry favor with his right-wing base and to mollify his hawkish coalition partners, and because he truly does not believe Palestinian statehood is around the corner. But he has most emphatically not embraced a one-state solution, which would doom Israel’s Jewish majority or force the subversion of its democracy.
During Wednesday’s press conference, the prime minister spoke about the need to “look for new ways, new ideas” on how to advance peace. “And I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu has talked about this for years: Israel and the Sunni Arab states have a common foe in Iran, which opens the door for new regional alliances. In the absence of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Jerusalem’s friends in Cairo, Riyadh and elsewhere may pressure Ramallah into concessions needed for a peace agreement, he argues routinely.
The problem with this approach is that Arab leaders vow not to normalize ties with Israel as long as the occupation of the Palestinian people endures.
Trump waxed enthusiastically about the idea. “It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand,” he said. Later he added, “We have some pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this.”
The president said this so-called “outside-in” approach “hasn’t been discussed before” — apparently unaware that it has been talked up by Netanyahu for a long time, but publicly rejected by Arab leaders.
Trump’s evident unfamiliarity with the history and intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also explains his controversial comment about “two-state and one-state.”
He did not actually reject a two-state solution. He merely indicated that he doesn’t care about the details as long as Israelis and Palestinians eventually reach the “great peace deal” he so eagerly desires.
This laissez-faire attitude certainly differentiates Trump from his predecessor, Barack Obama, who knew exactly what he expected of Israel — withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the creation of a Palestinian state, with some land swaps — but failed spectacularly with his approach.
There are several indications that the current US administration will not abandon the two-state solution. For a start, Trump himself said Wednesday that he thought it “looked like it may be the easier of the two.” He never ruled it out, but merely that he’d be “happy with the one [the two parties] like the best.”
At least on paper, both Ramallah and Jerusalem still strive for a two-state solution (even though Netanyahu refuses to say so for domestic political reasons). The Palestinian leadership made this plain after the Trump-Netanyahu press conference, even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has long resisted Netanyahu’s calls for him to return to the negotiating table. As long as Israel and the Palestinians do not say otherwise, there is no reason for Trump to withdraw support for a policy they share.
Furthermore, Trump is now saying Israeli settlements may be unhelpful in the pursuit of the “ultimate deal.” On Wednesday, he asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” There is no other apparent reason for such a request other than the desire to keep alive the prospect of a future contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank. Supporters of the two-state deal argue that settlement expansion is gradually rendering separation and a two-state accord impossible, which is precisely why Jewish opponents of the accord, who want to retain most or all of Biblical Judea and Samaria, relentlessly push for more settlement construction.
On Thursday, David Friedman, Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel, and Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the United Nations, both indicated that the White House still backs a two-state solution. “We absolutely support a two-state solution, but we are thinking out-of-the-box as well,” Haley said after a Security Council meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Said Friedman, at a Senate panel confirmation hearing, “It still remains the best possibility of peace in the region.” Of a one-state outcome, he added: “I don’t think anyone would like a state where different classes of citizens have different rights.”
As long as Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel, Abbas is the president of the Palestinian Authority, and the Middle East remains bloodily unpredictable, Trump’s deal-making prowess will be a full-stretch to achieve any progress at all. But for now, despite Trump’s indifference to the specifics, the two-state accord, and no other, is the deal they’re not doing.