Those who expected Donald Trump to effect genuine change in Washington still might be waiting for him to take action on some issues, but when it comes to altering existing Middle East policy, the president has not disappointed. With his refusal to specifically endorse a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the president has seemingly discarded the idea that has been the bedrock principle of U.S. Middle East diplomacy for the past generation.
When asked about a two-state solution during a joint press conference prior to his first meeting as president with Israeli prime pinister Netanyahu, Trump replied:
I’m looking at two-state and one-state. I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.
In doing so, Trump upset people on both sides. Palestinians think his unwillingness to pledge to work for an independent Palestinian state reveals his belief that they don’t deserve sovereignty. By the same token, many Israelis worry that his willingness to “live with” a one-state solution means he wouldn’t care if a Jewish state were replaced by one in which Arabs outnumbered Jews — which would end the entire Zionist experiment.
His statement was typically Trumpian in that it displayed either his ignorance or his lack of interest in the details, but it’s clear that the president wasn’t supporting either the one-state or the two-state option. Instead, what he was doing was endorsing a diplomatic principle that is just as important: The U.S. cannot impose peace on terms that aren’t accepted by the parties, and we shouldn’t behave in a manner that encourages Palestinians’ ongoing refusal to make peace.
Using the words “one state” was a mistake on Trump’s part. A one-state solution could lead to peace of a sort but only if one of the two sides surrendered. If Israelis acquiesce to the destruction of their country, it would end the conflict — at the cost of a potential Holocaust. Similarly, peace could result from the Palestinians’ deciding that they were ready to cede all of the country to the Jews and give up all hope of governing themselves. But since neither scenario is going to happen, to speak of one state is to declare that any compromise is impossible even in a distant and theoretical future.
The one-state option is the platform of Hamas, the Islamist terror group that governs the independent Palestinian state that exists (in all but name) in Gaza. Hamas’s goal is one Islamist state in which the Jewish population would either be massacred or expelled. The Fatah Party that runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank pays lip service at times to a two-state solution, but its ideology centers on denial and hope: Deny the right of the Jews to any part of the country, and hope for a state Arabs will dominate. Both Hamas and Fatah glorify violence against Jews and honor terrorists.
That’s why few Israelis believe a two-state solution is possible. Though it’s clear an overwhelming majority of Israelis want a two-state solution, they understand that the Palestinians have yet to come to terms with Israel’s legitimacy, and they think more territorial withdrawals would endanger their security without bringing peace. The idea of possibly replicating a Hamas state in the West Bank — far larger and more strategic than Gaza — strikes most Israelis as not only ill-advised but utterly insane.
A minority of Israelis do think that Israel can rule between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River indefinitely in spite of the presence of millions of Palestinians who don’t want to share the country with them. But there is a difference between supporting the right of Jews to disputed territory and asserting that you regard the exercise of that right as more important than making peace (if making peace were possible). Those to the right of Netanyahu might oppose giving up any territory, but they know that if the Palestinians ever did accept one of Israel’s offers of statehood, the Right would be heavily outvoted by the Israelis willing to give up territory for peace.
Putting all the pressure on the Israelis was a bigger mistake than anything Trump has said.
But just because Trump isn’t demanding a two-state solution doesn’t mean he is opposing it or even that his stance makes it less likely. For eight years, President Obama insisted that the Israelis give up the West Bank and part of Jerusalem in order to allow a Palestinian state. Putting all the pressure on the Israelis was a bigger mistake than anything Trump has said. Obama didn’t take into account that Palestinian politics and the Hamas–Fatah rivalry made it impossible for their so-called moderates to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be located. Obama’s approach had the effect of rewarding Palestinian intransigence, which doomed his efforts.
In saying he didn’t care what the terms of peace were so long as both sides accepted them, Trump sent the opposite message to the Palestinians. The Palestinians believe that pressure from the international community will isolate the Jewish state and make it vulnerable. Trump’s refusal to sanctify the two-state mantra is a warning that if Palestinians want a state, they will not get it by jettisoning negotiations and asking the United Nations to impose terms on Israel — which is how they rewarded Obama for his efforts on their behalf.
Trump appears genuine in his desire to broker a peace deal. Indeed, to the dismay of many on the Israeli right, he wants Netanyahu to restrain settlement growth in parts of the West Bank that would be included in a Palestinian state — even if Trump knows that settlements are not the cause of the conflict.
Yet like all others who have tried, Trump is bound to fail in his quest to conclude the ultimate Middle East real-estate transaction. If he does fail, it will not be because he declined to utter the magic words “two states” at a White House presser. Even the ablest diplomat or deal-maker can’t wish away the realities of Palestinian politics. But Trump’s willingness to put pressure on the Palestinians — rather than pointlessly hammering the Israelis as Obama did — actually increases his chances of success, minimal though they may be.