Opinion |

Trump Wants the 'Ultimate' Peace Deal? The Two-state Solution Is Still Waiting

Pursuing unworkable and Utopian avenues toward Israeli-Palestinian peace serves no one's interests: not those of Israel, the Palestinians, nor the U.S. president himself.

Susie Gelman
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U.S. President Donald Trump reaches to greet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, February 15, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump reaches to greet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, February 15, 2017.Credit: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
Susie Gelman

U.S. President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting on Wednesday was notable for a number of reasons, but the one that may linger the longest is the president’s statement that he is "looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like." 

The most generous interpretation of this statement is that Trump understands that any solution must be reached by the two parties themselves and cannot be imposed from the outside; given the president’s often unclear language, perhaps that was his intent. 

But neither the president nor the prime minister should delude himself about the universe of feasible options for definitively resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two-state solution remains the only viable path forward for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic and the only one that has any chance of being accepted by both parties.

Trump’s own words while standing next to Netanyahu indicated that he has some understanding that a single state is not an optimal solution. He warned Netanyahu that both sides will have to make compromises and publicly asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”  

Neither of these comments makes sense unless Trump is looking toward a deal that envisions an independent Palestine, since continued settlement expansion poses no barrier to a one-state outcome and, in fact, makes its realization more likely. But the lack of unambiguous support for two states betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what is possible in this context, and Trump would be wasting his time and effort if he expends American resources on behalf of exploring a fantastical one-state alternative.

The reasons that the two-state solution is the only workable one are legion.

First and foremost, there is no other way for Israel to maintain both its Jewish and its democratic character. A one-state outcome that annexes the West Bank and provides all of the Palestinians living there with Israeli citizenship, endorsed by President Rivlin earlier this week, would mean the eventual end of Israel’s Jewish majority. This would not occur overnight, but as the Palestinian birth rate in the West Bank continues to outpace the Jewish birth rate, and as Israeli Jews migrate overseas in greater numbers while the country’s demographics tilt toward the Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox, it will indeed happen. 

A one-state reality in which only part of the West Bank is annexed, while keeping the rest of it in a state of permanent limbo as advocated by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, would spell the demise of Israeli democracy. Israel cannot reject a two-state solution with finality and maintain its democratic status while refusing to grant full citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank. 

Yet maintaining the status quo indefinitely is also not an option, as the status quo does not exist; it changes every day in ways that do not redound to Israel’s benefit.

But the reasons that the one-state concept is not workable do not end here. Other allegedly creative “out-of-the-box” options are just as unfeasible. 

Some on the Israeli right have long imagined a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation. However, the Jordanian government will never agree to incorporate 2.75 million additional Palestinians into its territory when it already has legitimacy issues with its own Palestinian population and not enough water or natural resources to accommodate a larger populace. Similarly, asking Egypt to give up the Sinai for a Palestinian state is a nonstarter in Cairo, where ceding land of any sort is viewed as a humiliating defeat. 

An Israeli-Palestinian confederation would be a recipe for endless violence and bloodshed between two populations that have no level of trust at present, even when they are mostly separated. 

As for the “outside-in” solution reportedly being pursued by Trump and Netanyahu, by which Israel plans to engage with the moderate Arab states in the region, it would only be accepted by those states were it to be pursued in conjunction with a process to engage the Palestinians rather than be used as a way to work around them.

The repeated questions for ambassador-designee David Friedman at his hearing on Thursday about his views on the two-state solution, and the multiple expressions of support for two states, demonstrate the enduring power of this objective. The two-state solution is imperfect but certainly not impractical. The current environment is not conducive for negotiations, but interim measures – such as the plan developed by the commanders for Israel’s security – can be taken that would preserve the two-state option for future governments to realize. 

Pursuing Utopian avenues toward Israeli-Palestinian peace that cannot be implemented and to which the relevant parties will not acquiesce serves no one’s interests – not those of Israel, the Palestinians, or the president. Trump’s desire to make the “ultimate deal” seems genuine, and it is understandable that he would be seduced by the notion of a new path that might work where others have failed. What Trump is fated to learn as he jumps into Middle East peacemaking, however, is that the two-state solution persists because it is the only viable resolution to the conflict.

Trump did not dismiss the two-state solution at his press conference with Netanyahu despite his purposeful decision not to embrace it, and he would be wise to continue to not reject it. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley confirmed on Thursday that the two-state solution remains the position of the American government, raising the possibility that Trump’s evasions on the subject were designed to extract concessions from Netanyahu rather than indicate a new American policy.  

Trump would be well-advised to firmly and decisively keep the Israelis and the Palestinians on the path of two states, since the simple truth is that there is no alternative.

Susie Gelman is chair of Israel Policy Forum, a non-partisan American organization founded in 1993 that advocates for a viable two-state solution.