By Roger Cohen
There was plenty not to like in President Donald Trump’s joint appearance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. But before I get to that, let’s entertain the notion that there was some merit in Trump’s agnostic punt on whether a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians should involve one state or two.
The two-state idea has become a fantasy divorced from the reality of Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank. No basis exists today for believing it’s achievable. American adherence to that goal has become an exercise in mental laziness allowing leaders to do their worst behind the “peace process” fig leaf.
So Trump’s trashing of two-state doctrinal orthodoxy — “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like” — at least had the merit of constituting a break with a sham. (I say this with great reluctance as a longtime two-state advocate.) It places Israel and Netanyahu before the choice they face.
As Netanyahu knows, the only “one state” that Palestinians are going to “like” — let alone accept — is one in which they are full and equal citizens who get to vote. Demographics dictate that this, in turn, will spell the end of the Jewish state — unless Israel wants to be an undemocratic pariah state ruling over a vast disenfranchised Palestinian population.
The president noted, in his preferred pointed-playful quasi-Mafioso style, “Both sides will have to make compromises.” He said he’d like to see Netanyahu “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” (So now they are an impediment to peace, after all. Duh.) He went into kick-the-can mode on the incendiary issue of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Reality, in the form of conversations with Arab leaders, has bitten. Real estate in the Holy Land is different; it’s dynamite.
Predictably, the Israeli right — I mean the far right beyond Netanyahu — celebrated Trump’s shift. Naftali Bennett, the education minister, announced a “new era.” He tweeted that there was no need for a “third Palestinian state beyond Jordan and Gaza.” The Palestinians were incensed.
But beyond that noise, the reality of simmering stalemate is unchanged. Israel will not annex the West Bank because adding 2.5 million Palestinian citizens would undo the Jewish state. It prefers to oppress and humiliate 2.5 million nonvoting noncitizens. Settlement growth will continue, as it has for almost 50 years, and the more than 400,000 settlers in the West Bank will convey better than words what Israel really thinks of Palestinian statehood. The Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, will remain a monument to impotence. Palestinian fury will periodically erupt.
Netanyahu was explicit. He wants a Jewish state that retains “the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.” That, he claimed, was what he’s been saying for years. Wrong. When he first reluctantly admitted the possibility of two states in 2009, he insisted Palestine be “demilitarized.” That’s not the same as total Israeli security control. Netanyahu is now close to Bennett’s position: Some form of Palestinian self-rule (and they can call it what they like) on whatever disjointed fragments of the West Bank remain once Israel has satisfied its security needs.
As Daniel Shapiro, the former American ambassador to Israel, told me: “A two-state solution must assure Israel’s security. But it must also pass the laugh test of a sovereign Palestinian state.” Netanyahu’s proposal does not pass the test of what Palestinians will ever accept.
Enter the la-la-land of the “outside-in” regional approach to peace, whereby Israel’s “newfound Arab partners,” in Netanyahu’s words, unlock the impasse by pressuring Palestinians to compromise. Sure, bound by shared anti-Iranian concerns, some Arab states have found intelligence cooperation with Israel useful, but their sympathy ends where Palestinian humiliation begins.
Netanyahu is going to have to put something on the table: a halt to settlement growth; Palestinian economic development in the large Israeli-controlled West Bank area known as “Area C”; agreement on borders at the pre-1967 lines with agreed territorial swaps. Something! Arabs, whatever millennial loathing they harbor for Iran, have not suddenly swooned into Israel’s arms.
A sickly arrogance pervaded the Trump-Netanyahu love fest. Their shared contempt for the Palestinian people is obvious. The Trump administration has just blocked the appointment of Salam Fayyad to head the U.N. mission in Libya on the grounds that, well, he’s a Palestinian.
No matter that he’s a widely respected, American-educated, former Palestinian prime minister who has been a tireless and innovative seeker of a two-state peace. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the U.N., said, “The United States does not currently recognize a Palestinian state or support the signal this appointment would send.” What signal, pray? Trump should lift the American objection to Fayyad right now if he’s serious about a deal.
This is prejudice as policy, the worst of Trump (with his grotesque deflection of a question about anti-Semitism into a celebration of his victory not far behind). It suggests his interesting one-state two-state provocation will lead nowhere.