In his last press conference before leaving office, President Obama reiterated his support for a two-state solution as the most viable way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I don’t see how this issue gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy if there are not two states,” he said.
Then, with his subtle sarcasm, he added: “We’ll see how Trump’s approach plays out.”
On Thursday, at the joint press conference of President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, we were treated with a taste of the Trump approach. “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state,” Trump quipped between smiles, “and 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.”
This can be easily dismissed as another example of a president who has no clue about the complexities of the world, but somehow always manages to come up with a wisecrack that leaves his listeners laughing, but also puzzled.
Last year, when he met with the editorial board of the Washington Post, candidate Trump was asked how he would contain the Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. He answered: “We have to be unpredictable. We’re totally predictable. And predictable is bad.” Sounds good, but what does it really mean?
With this kind of ambiguity, no wonder that immediately following the Trump-Netanyahu press conference, right-wing circles in Israel hastened to interpret Trump’s remark as a death warrant to the two-state solution.
Naftali Bennett, leader of Habayit Hayehudi —The Jewish Home Party — who has been long pushing Netanyahu to renounce his 2009 pledge to a two-state solution, tweeted triumphantly: “The Palestinian flag has been taken off the flagpole and was replaced with the Israeli flag.”
In rhetoric, Bennett can take the Palestinian flag off the flagpole; however, he can’t make 2 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank disappear. If he incorporates them into Israel, while maintaining Israel’s democracy, then Israel might lose its Jewish majority. If, on the other hand, the Palestinians will not be full Israeli citizens, then Israel might become an apartheid state.
Bennett seems to have thought about it. “The Palestinians already have two states — Gaza and Jordan,” he tweeted. “There is no need for a third.”
This notion corroborates with the theme Netanyahu touched on briefly in the press conference: “I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians.”
There is nothing wrong in adopting such a regional approach, where Israel mobilizes its new Sunni friends, such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, to create an Arab-Israeli umbrella for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Actually, Israel should have tried it long ago, by taking the Arab Peace Initiative from 2002 seriously.
However, I suspect this regional approach is only a ruse to somehow bypass the Palestinians altogether. I don’t think it will work. Like Israel’s past efforts to engineer the Middle East (hoping to make peace with Lebanon, in 1983, for example, by counting on the treacherous Maronite minority there, and alienating the then-moderate Shiite majority), this one will fail as well.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a case in point. Forty years ago, he entertained the idea of the “Jordanian Option,” hoping that the Palestinians in the West Bank will become Jordanian citizens. Nothing of the sort happened. Later, he tried to promote a Palestinian representation in the West Bank, based on dubious rural personalities. The Palestinian urban majority rejected them vehemently and eventually the first Intifada erupted.
If Netanyahu returns home believing that he received from Trump carte blanche to ignore and bypass the Palestinians, then he might wake up to a bitter disappointment. The one word Trump mentioned more than any other, not surprisingly, is the word “deal.” And here is what he had said to the Israeli newspaper Yisrael Hayom just a week ago: “No deal is a good deal if it isn’t good for all sides.”
The logical conclusion from this Trump principle is that whatever Netanyahu or Bennett thinks or wants, for an Israeli-Palestinian deal to work, it must include a Palestinian state (unless Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in- law who has been appointed special envoy to the Middle East, succeeds in convincing the Palestinians that they are better off without one).
Like Obama, we all are eager to see how Trump’s approach plays out. If a deal is made, then Trump, in his words, “will like the one that both parties like.” No deal, and Trump, who fears being a loser more than he cares about Israel, will wash his hands of the Middle East and leave the parties to do whatever they like.
Good luck to us all.