By: Nate Subramanian, Columnist
Photo Credit: TIME
During the heady days of the 2016 US presidential campaign, television personality and businessman Donald Trump signaled his support for continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and promised to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.[i] Those comments raised the possibility of a US president that would clearly favor the interests of the Israeli right wing in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian political conflict. This past week, Trump, now president, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and seemed to push back on that possibility.
While the White House will not insist on the two-state solution that has long been official US policy, it has indicated it still intends to seek a lasting peace in the region and has signaled its openness to any form that peace takes. As US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stated, the United States “absolutely support[s] the two-state solution but [is] thinking out of the box as well.”[ii] Trump’s longtime friend and lawyer David Friedman, the nominee for the administration’s ambassador to Israel, has been dogged by his past dismissals of the two-state solution (he termed it an “illusion” as recently as six months ago) and vocal support for settlements. In a confirmation hearing Thursday, Friedman affirmed his belief that a two-state solution remained the “best possibility for peace in the region,” though he also expressed skepticism about the ability of Palestinian leadership to meet Israel’s conditions.[iii] Netanyahu walked back his past support for the two-state solution, claiming a proposed Palestinian state would have to accept Israeli security control of the West Bank and saying he’d rather “deal with substance” than commit to “labels.” Trump, for his part, asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”[iv]
These statements and pivots have raised the question among observers of the region: is this the long-bemoaned ‘death’ of the two-state solution? Has it always been dead?
An optimistic view might characterize the administration’s statements as a form of strategic ambiguity that seeks to preserve optionality and freedom to switch stances as political opportunities arise for either a viable two-state solution, a just one-state solution, or another option. A cynical view, meanwhile, might interpret the administration’s stance as de facto indifference to continuing Israeli settlement expansion, which reduces the territorial security of a potential Palestinian state and renders it increasingly unlikely. While the future of the conflict is unpredictable, the pessimistic view seems to bear more truth. If the United States does not take any and all measures to preserve the possibility of a Palestinian state, that possibility will be rendered increasingly unlikely by Israeli political trends.
Not Choosing is a Choice—And Facts on the Ground Are Changing
Regardless of the Trump Administration’s intended stance, the Israeli right wing has seized the new US approach as a clear opportunity. This past week, a veritable raft of Israeli right-wingers hailed Netanyahu and Trump’s statements as a victory for the one-state solution. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed that all Israeli cabinet members opposed a Palestinian state in the short term and called for continued settlement expansion and “sovereignty over the greater Jerusalem area”; Transport Minister Yisrael Katz rejected a two-state solution, as did Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev; and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely called for gradual expansion of Israeli sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank.[v] On February 6, the Knesset passed legislation that legalized around 3,000 Israeli housing units built on Palestinian-owned private property in the West Bank. Regev praised this “Regularization Law” as a “historic move” toward annexing the West Bank; Palestinian officials termed it “land theft.”[vi]
The settler population has nearly doubled since the late 1990s and continues to expand; today, it stands at 350,000-400,000. Maps of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank resemble Swiss cheese, and one could be forgiven for wondering, looking at such maps, where a Palestinian state could be successfully created.[vii] Significant regional pressure is unlikely: while Arab populations care about the issue, Arab leaders are unhappy with the political weakness of Palestinian leadership, and a regional approach would require Israeli concessions unlikely in Israel’s current political climate.[viii] In the past, Netanyahu has relied on US disapproval as a counterbalance to his far-right coalition partners; absent a strong US two-state policy, the right wing will gain further ground in the Israeli political discourse about settlement expansion and annexation.
To enact a policy agenda that differs from the status quo, any president must have a clear vision and strong organizational focus. This goes double for an issue as complex and contentious as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump did not prioritize coming up with concrete policy solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the course of the election campaign, though his stated diplomatic ambitions revolve around ‘deal-making.’ If Trump intends the two-state solution to remain a real possibility as opposed to a turn of phrase, he must now pursue any and all measures to preserve it.
A Just One-State Solution?
In December, former Secretary of State John Kerry warned of a key juncture in which Israel would have to choose between a two-state solution—which would guarantee the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in states coterminous with their political communities and able to determine their futures—and a one-state solution that would place Israel’s commitment to democracy at direct odds with its identity as a Jewish state and homeland. Since the Netanyahu-Trump meeting, Jewish Democrats in Congress have stressed the reality of this crossroads.[ix] To ensure a just outcome, a one-state solution must entail the full political inclusion of Palestinians and their rights in every major legal sense of Israeli democracy. It remains to be seen whether the Israeli right-wing would be satisfied with such an outcome.
[i] Orly Azoulay, “Trump: Israel should ‘keep going’ with settlements expansions,” Ynetnews, May 4, 2016, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4799194,00.html.
[ii] Josh Lederman, “1 state or 2? Mixed messages from US on Mideast peace plans,” Associated Press, February 17, 2017, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/09cfac9f8f904745aece5c3d920d1841/1-state-or-2-mixed-messages-us-mideast-peace-plans.
[iii] Barak Ravid, “Trump’s Israel Pick David Friedman at Senate Confirmation Hearing: Two-state Solution Remains Best Path to Peace,” Haaretz, February 16, 2017, http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/LIVE-1.772078/Friedman-confrimation-fact-check.
[iv] Gregory Korte and David Jackson, “Trump and Netanyahu waver on support for two-state solution in Middle East,” USA Today, February 15, 2017, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/02/15/netanyahu-trump-meeting-no-daylight-two-state-solution/97937580/.
[v] “Erdan: No minister, including Netanyahu, wants a Palestinian state soon,” The Times of Israel, February 13, 2017, http://www.timesofisrael.com/erdan-no-minister-including-netanyahu-wants-a-palestinian-state-soon/; Ido Ben Porat, “Erdan: Tell the world that Israel is ours,” Arutz Sheva, February 12, 2017, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/224900; Itamar Eichner, Kobi Nachshoni, and Reuters, “Netanyahu pledges US-Israel relationship ‘about to become stronger,’” Ynetnews, February 13, 2017, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4921905,00.html; Ido Ben Porat, “‘The world respects countries that protect their land,’” Arutz Sheva, February 13, 2017, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/224906; Yoni Kempinski, “Hotovely calls for gradual sovereignty,” Arutz Sheva, February 13, 2017, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/224868; Yoel Domb, “‘Netanyahu will return with good news for Israel,’” Arutz Sheva, February 13, 2017, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/224911.
[vi] Andrew Carey and Emanuella Grinberg, “Israel’s parliament passes West Bank outposts bill,” CNN, February 7, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/06/middleeast/israel-knesset-west-bank-outposts-bill/index.html.
[vii] Representative maps: Jennifer Williams and Javier Zarracina, “The growth of Israeli settlements, explained in 5 charts,” Vox, last updated December 30, 2016, http://www.vox.com/world/2016/12/30/14088842/israeli-settlements-explained-in-5-charts.
[viii] Ilan Goldenberg, “Trump’s ‘Outside-In’ Approach to Israel-Palestine Won’t Work Right Now,” Foreign Policy, February 13, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/13/trumps-outside-in-approach-to-israeli-palestinian-peacemaking-wont-work-right-now-peace-conflict-two-state-solution/.
[ix] Julian Pecquet, “Jewish lawmakers rip Trump over two-state walkback,” Al-Monitor, February 15, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/02/jewish-lawmakers-rip-trump-over-two-state-walkback.html.