Contrary to what you may have read, the so-called president of the United States did not stand next to Benjamin Netanyahu and announce that he has abandoned American backing for a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
What Donald Trump actually announced last week was that the new American regime has abandoned caring about Israeli-Palestinian peace, or for that matter caring to understand the issue.
This is actually much more cynical and dangerous, and demonstrates, with exclamation marks, how people far from American shores are likely to suffer from America’s strange choice of a leader.
“So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.” Trump said at his press conference with Netanyahu. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians—if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
The simplest translation of this riff would be, “Er, one state? Two states? Mike Flynn was supposed to explain the difference to me, but for some reason he’s not in his office today.”
I’m being unfair. Trump did remember that he’d been forced to fire Flynn a couple days earlier. He complained that Flynn had been treated so unfairly by whoever leaked information about his contacts with Russia.
What’s clear, though, is that neither Trump nor anyone in his inner circle bothered to read internal histories of U.S. peace efforts over the last eight years, which were surely written by Obama administration officials before January 20 to help the incoming administration. Likewise, if career foreign policy staffers made the futile effort of preparing the standard briefing papers for a summit meeting before Netanyahu arrived, Trump didn’t bother even to read the large-print headings.
Both sets of papers would have explained why the only possible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a two-state agreement, and how Israeli settlements in the West Bank eat away at the chances of getting there.
The briefing papers would have described the failure three years ago of Secretary of State John Kerry’s well-publicized effort to drag Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to yes. An honest briefing paper would have noted, albeit in understated diplomatese, that Netanyahu appeared unhappy with any formulation that could have led to a two-state agreement.
Finally, the prep materials would have detailed Kerry’s final, secret effort: a regional peace initiative, in which Egypt and Jordan would put pressure on Netanyahu and Abbas and would provide Abbas with Arab legitimacy for concessions.
Kerry, we now know, presented this plan a year ago in Jordan, at a secret summit meeting with Netanyahu, Jordan’s King Abdullah, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Abdullah and al-Sisi were willing to accept Kerry’s framework for an agreement, including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state—one of Netanyahu’s preconditions, which he has always counted on Arab leaders rejecting. Netanyahu still didn’t endorse Kerry’s plan.
Face it: The only possible way of briefing Trump on all this would have been to find a Fox anchor willing to squeeze it into a news item. Then Trump could have watched it in his bathrobe.
LET’S PARSE WHAT HAPPENED when the alleged president lacked even that much preparation. Trump spoke about “two-state and one-state” as if Netanyahu and Abbas could easily agree on one or the other—if only America got out of the way.
Trump asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” as if the problem was building today rather than, say, in May. This is quite in line with the White House statement earlier this month: It asked for a small measure of Israeli restraint—but broke with U.S. policy since by 1967 by declaring that “we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace.”
If you don’t care about a two-state agreement, if you don’t think settlements get in the way of peace, then why ask for any pause at all? The most likely explanation: David Friedman, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, told him that settlements aren’t a problem. Then King Abdullah rushed to Washington, and told Trump he was a great guy but Israel’s announcements of new settlements were upsetting. So Trump decided, well, OK, Netanyahu likes me but so does Abdullah, so maybe Netanyahu can just slow down his real-estate project.
At the press conference, Netanyahu presented his very own idea for ending the conflict: a regional peace initiative “involving our new found Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians.”
Trump’s response: “I didn’t know you were going to be mentioning that, but that’s—now that you did, I think it’s a terrific thing and I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this.”
By which Trump meant: “I’ve never heard that idea, but I’m glad to brand it as the Trump Plan, which will show that I alone can bring a huge Middle East peace, I alone.”
Four days later, Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published his exclusive report on Kerry’s attempt last year at a regional peace initiative. It was based on leaks from “former senior officials in the Obama administration.” For practical purposes, it’s a close fit for the briefing paper that Trump either didn’t get or didn’t read. The timing isn’t coincidence. The Haaretz story is Obama officials calling bullshit on Netanyahu and Trump.
A REALITY CHECK: There is no “one-state solution.” There’s the current one-state reality, in which Israel de facto rules the West Bank as a colony. There’s the one-state fantasy of some Israeli rightists, in which Israeli would formally annex the West Bank while creating obstacles to Palestinians gaining full citizenship. Somehow, in that fantasy, Palestinians stop wanting self-determination. There’s a parallel fantasy of some Palestinians, in which a single Palestinian state rules the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Magically, Jews give up on self-determination—or leave.
There’s one more fantasy, more attractive, in which Jews and Arabs share a state. The problem with this vision is it that it assumes that both will be satisfied with equal individual rights, and together will be the first groups in the 21st century to give up on nationalism. The actual outcome would be two national groups, still in conflict, locked into one political entity. Instead of one state, the result could be a failed state.
If hope for a two-state outcome has remained alive, it’s in part because of American support. By waving away that support, Trump has undercut moderates on both sides and strengthened extremists. The odds of a new round of violence are rising.
Consider this a case study. America has been the keystone in the arch of diplomatic structures around the world. Now it has chosen a president who doesn’t care and can’t be bothered to learn. When the keystone is yanked out, instability or collapse follows.