There were more than a few bizarro world moments at the White House Wednesday as President Donald Trump met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time since taking the oath of office. Trump departed from decades of U.S. policy of all administrations, Republican and Democratic, when he said that America was no longer determined to reach a two-state solution to end the conflict.
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“So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said, eliciting laughter. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
Thinking that they’ll find a formula that both parties will “like” is itself delusional. But more perplexing, Trump’s comments suggest a lack of knowledge of the complexities and realities of the region. When Trump throws around a “one-state” solution, does he have any idea what that actually entails?
Of course, Netanyahu does. That's why during his speech he described his red lines. This suggests a vision that is much more expansionistic and less flexible than what he indicated in his 2011 Bar-Ilan speech.
“The two prerequisites of peace – recognition of the Jewish state, and Israel's security needs west of the Jordan – they remain pertinent.” Read: Israel must stay in the Jordan Valley forever, and in control of the West Bank as well. It’s hard to see where a sovereign Palestinian entity – much less a contiguous one – fits into this picture.
Though it's not a new argument by any means, it does effectively cancel out the viability of reaching a two-state solution. It’s also hard to envision an equitable one-state solution that will satisfy Israel’s demand for security control and Palestinians’ demands for self-determination. Palestinian national aspirations are not going to be fulfilled by simply being made into second-class citizens in an Israel with an annexed West Bank, subject to the whims of the military and the security forces much as they are now, with the right to vote thrown in.
Plus, we all know the demographic conundrum that has kept Israel from annexing the West Bank for nearly 50 years, including in the first heady days following the Six-Day War. If you grant citizenship to all West Bankers – we won't even discuss Gaza for now – then the Jewish state quickly loses its Jewish majority. But then again, there's a great example of a democracy where the candidate with the most votes doesn't govern anyway: it's called America. Israel could write itself an almost-democratic constitution that would ensure that the prime minister is always Jewish. Of course, pushing 70, Israel still has no constitution, for reasons ranging from religious opposition to “temporary” borders. And the idea of enforcing Jewish-Zionist rule over a non-Jewish majority was anathema to the founders of the state.
So while one state may sound nice, unless Israel can engage in a true power-sharing and space-altering compromise with the Palestinians – one that would never allow legislation like the land-grab bill passed last week to stand up for even a day – it’s unlikely to catch on.
Put together in a row, Trump’s statements hardly even add up. If he's in favor of a possible one-state solution, then what's the point of stopping settlements anyway? If we’re all going to get “a great peace deal” that might not involve a Palestinian state, then does it even matter if Israel is building in the settlements? To be sure, that would be a great idea, if only as a confidence-building measure. But of course, conference-building measures are so Clinton era. Now, blame is the name of the game. Rather than talk about Palestinians having a right to their own place under the sun, Trump only names them in relations to hatred.
Yet Trump surprised more than a few of us – Netanyahu foremost among them – by chastising him on settlements, asking in a casual way for Netanyahu lay off on settlement building.
"As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit," Trump said. “We’ll work something out."
The test now will come in three parts. Is Jared Kushner, a young 30-something-year-old raised on a typical American-Zionist narrative that offers little exposure to the Palestinian viewpoint, going to be able to cajole parties to the negotiating table? (And does Netanyahu even want to go through the motions again, given his current coalition?)
Will the Trump administration reach out to Mahmoud Abbas and try to cultivate him as another Palestinian moderates? Will they bring him to the White House? Or will Trump and his subordinates keep repeating excuses about Palestinian textbooks and parents teaching kids to hate as opposed to working on the source of that hate?
Finally, there's Trump’s nominee for ambassador, and his plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump can’t argue for getting the deal of deals while appointing someone who is an ardent supporter of the settlements and views pro-peace, left-wing Jews as kapos.
The sooner Trump acts – or stalls – on any of these, the sooner we will know what he means by saying that he just wants to keep Netanyahu and the Palestinians “happy.” Trump likes autocrats and strong leaders, so to him, Israel is Netanyahu. It’s not even clear if he knows how to pronounce Abu Mazen's name, or if he realizes that just as Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall, Palestinians aren’t likely to foot the bill in the form of sacrificing their national aspirations.