The briefings by senior American administration officials to the media over the weekend, ahead of the meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, show a very disturbing paradigm shift with regard to the United States' relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the first time, the White House and the State Department in Washington have begun to state publicly that the reality in the West Bank is becoming that of one state for two peoples.
The bombshell was dropped by Obama’s senior adviser on the Middle East, Robert Malley. He stated that a new reality has been created in which not only is there no chance of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement but that even the possibility of renewing negotiations between the parties seems very slim.
“The president is going to want to hear from PM Netanyahu, given that reality, which is a new one, how does he see Israel going forward in preventing the emergence of a one-state solution, “ he said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby spoke similarly in a press briefing Friday. “Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has repeatedly said that he does not want a one-state solution and a bi-national state. So the real question is: What concrete steps and policies are they prepared to take to avoid that outcome?”
Malley, a veteran diplomat who has been accompanying the Israeli-Palestinian peace process almost since its first day, is just one of a growing group of senior officials in the U.S. administration who believe that the United States must formulate a policy for a situation in which the two-state solution will die and think about how this will mold future relations with Israel – both from the point of view of joint interests and of shared values.
That group of senior American officials believes that if the United States wants to stop the current trend and preserve the possibility of applying the two-state solution sometime in the future, President Obama must speak now about the reality of one state, not as a theoretical threat but a state of affairs that is emerging before our eyes.
The main question Obama intends to ask Netanyahu during his meeting is what the latter’s plan is, and what alternative he proposes for the two-state solution. The White House published these things before Netanyahu’s arrival and will apparently give them prominence after the meeting as well, both to stress the fact that Israel is heading on a path to becoming a bi-national state, but also, and perhaps more so, to show that Netanyahu has no answer or plan to deal with this trend.
A week ago Netanyahu hinted during his speech at the memorial ceremony for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the Knesset that Israel will take steps to reduce friction in the West Bank even without a Palestinian partner for negotiations or a permanent agreement. It is still unclear what Netanyahu meant – whether this was just a statement or that behind it lies the intention to carry out significant steps to mold reality in the West Bank so that a Palestinian state can be established in the future.
Ahead of the meeting with Obama, Netanyahu has put together a package of confidence-building measures vis-à-vis the Palestinians. This is in fact the first time that Netanyahu has come to a meeting at the White House with any kind of Israeli initiative, even a modest one. On the other hand, from what is known so far of these measures, which include mainly tactical steps, the prime minister is thinking in terms of a tranquilizer.
It is difficult to see how this package will satisfy the White House. The Americans who believe that the idea of two states is dying might see the Netanyahu’s measures as aspirin for a cancer patient. The American administration wants to see, together with measures along the lines of “the economic peace” that Netanyahu speaks of, greater steps that will show that Israel is heading, from a strategic point of view, to a two-state solution – even if implementation is only in the distant future.
The term that senior American administration officials are using on the Palestinian issue is “transition” in the West Bank. That is, creating a reality in which the slide toward one state changes to movement back toward two states.
For these officials, the key to this is reining in construction in the settlements mainly outside the large settlement blocs and significantly increasing the footprint of the Palestinian Authority in Area C, where Israeli control is total and which contains the greatest land reserves in the West Bank for the future Palestinian state. At the White House there is difficultly in believing that Netanyahu is a partner even for such a limited move. Secretary of State John Kerry has not yet given up. He intends to invest his energy in this in his remaining year at his post.
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