Did Trump close the window on a two-state solution?
Observers of the deadlocked Israeli- Palestinian peace process have warned for several years that the window was closing on the possibility of a viable two-state solution, largely due to Israel’s relentless settlement-building activity on Palestinian territory.
US President Donald Trump may have closed the window for good on February 15th.
Speaking at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with whom he had just had extensive talks, Trump said when asked about a two-state solution: “I’m looking at two states and one state and I like the one that both parties like. I could live with either one.”
In two short sentences, Trump had taken a wrecking ball to the Middle East peace process, while saying nothing about what he intends to construct in its place.
Trump also asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” and said Israel would have to be flexible. “As with any successful negotiation, both sides will have to make compromises. You know that, right?” Trump said while looking directly at Netanyahu, who grudgingly agreed but said that the core of the problem was “Palestinian hate”.
The two-state solution has been the basis of all recent efforts towards a negotiated peace and is the overwhelming consensus of the international community. It is the basis of the Saudi-proposed and Arab League-endorsed Arab Peace Initiative. Even Netanyahu pledged tepid support for two states, although his actions have rendered such an outcome difficult to attain.
Although Trump has been in office for less than a month, his White House has become known as a place of contradictions and mixed messages. The issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace is proving to fit the pattern. Just 24 hours before Trump and Netanyahu met, CIA Director Mike Pompeo met in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and reportedly assured Abbas that the two-state solution remained the US objective.
And less than 24 hours after the Trump-Netanyahu news conference, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the United States still supported a two-state solution and that anyone who believed otherwise was “in error”. Trump’s remark was sandwiched in between.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Netanyahu on February 13th but did not publicly jump into the debate — perhaps wisely.
Tillerson departed for Germany on February 15th for a Group of 20 Foreign ministers meeting. After talking with Tillerson, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said: “I found that on the Israeli-Palestinian dossier [the US position] was very confused and worrying.”
Ayrault said he told Tillerson that “in France’s view there are no other options than the two-state solution and that the other option which Mr Tillerson brought up was not realistic, fair or balanced”. Ayrault did not say what other option Tillerson had raised.
In a briefing with the Israeli media after the news conference, Netanyahu said he was willing to work with Trump on reaching “a deal” with the Palestinians and claimed that he and the US president “see eye-to-eye on everything”.
He also said he does not want to rule over 2.5 million Palestinians forever — thus seeming to reject a one-state option — but suggested that any state the Palestinians obtained would be considerably less than fully sovereign. The Israeli military, he said, would not leave the West Bank and Israel would control the Jordan River Valley.
Netanyahu referred several times to Israel’s “new-found Arab partners”, an apparent reference to the fact that Israel and many Arab states share concerns about Iranian influence in the region and have conducted back-channel dialogue on the issue. It is hard to imagine, however, that any Arab leader would support a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict designed by Netanyahu.
The Israeli prime minister revealed that he asked Trump formally to recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights but did not share Trump’s response.
Trump insisted that he was committed to “a deal” and that he was uniquely capable of forging one. “Let’s try,” Netanyahu responded. Trump has asked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead the initiative. Kushner was in the front row during the Trump-Netanyahu media briefing but made no comments. Indeed, Kushner has never spoken publicly on the issue.
Palestinians were understandably dumbfounded by Trump’s remark. The PA Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling it “a dangerous shift” in US policy. Abbas said Israel seemed to want “one state with two systems — apartheid”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the dangers of abandoning the two-state solution.
Netanyahu faces a serious investigation into wrong-doing and a rabid right-wing that says he has not been sufficiently supportive of Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank; the last thing he likely needed was a US president with a plan. A disorganised White House suits Netanyahu’s purposes far better than one with a clear and focused objective.