Commentary

Is One State Better than Two?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

Donald Trump has upended decades of bipartisan U.S. commitment to the goal of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. In a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Trump indicated that he could support either a two-state or a one-state solution, insisting “I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.” The off-the-cuff remark appears to have provided a boost to Netanyahu, whose governing majority is dependent on the pro-settler Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) party, which supports building on land that has been proposed as part of a future Palestinian state. But looking beyond the surprise in the regional media, one finds many observers who believe that the alternatives to a two-state solution will ultimately not be palatable for Israel or the Palestinians.

For Jerusalem Post’s Bytovah Lazaroff, Trump’s off-the-cuff statement comes with its own set of risks, considering the president’s volatility: “On the surface, Trump appeared to hand Netanyahu a significant victory. The prime minister could return to Israel and assure his right-wing voters that one of their key demands, the disavowal of a Palestinian state, might be achievable, even if he himself remained committed to it. But Trump’s new philosophy for ending the conflict, uttered amid a pledge of friendship, also carried with it some words of warning....In his heart, he might agree that the U.S. Embassy belongs in Jerusalem and not Tel Aviv, or that Jews should build in the West Bank, their biblical heartland. But Trump’s guiding principle here will not be personal conviction, but rather his understanding of what is and what is not helpful for a renewed peace process.”

The unpredictable nature of the Trump administration is also on the mind of Israeli commentator Norman Baily, who, in an op-ed in the Globes, expresses concern that the Israeli government might act “stupidly” and anger Mr. Trump: “Unilateral moves sponsored by rightist politicians are liable to wreck Israel's relationship with the notoriously prickly new U.S. president....The inauguration of the Trump administration in Washington on January 20th was followed by euphoria on the part of Israelis in general and a massive display of hubris on the part of the government in Jerusalem. Without giving the administration even the courtesy of waiting until the prime minister had met with Trump, a meeting scheduled for this coming Wednesday, one measure after another was taken by the government and the Knesset with reference to the settlements with no coordination with or even prior notification of Washington....Such behavior would seriously annoy even a new president less prickly than Trump, who is notoriously sensitive to perceived slights.”

Then there are those, like Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff, who are less concerned with optics and diplomatic niceties and more worried about the security situation on the ground. According to Mr. Issacharoff, the two-state solution lost its viability a long time ago, and the alternatives to it don’t look promising: “The new U.S. president, who ran on his skill as a dealmaker, may be surprised to soon learn what many of us already know. The two-state solution is no longer on the menu. It hasn’t been realistic or relevant for quite a while now. That option gave up the ghost somewhere over the past few years, evaporating into the air of the settlements, and lost amidst the split between Gaza and the West Bank....In the end, the Arab countries will want a solution to the Palestinian problem. They will all want the removal of settlements, and, sooner or later they will all want to give the Palestinians a state. Maybe the time has come for Israel’s prime minister, who has been in office for the past eight years, to tell the Israeli public the truth: that we helped to destroy the two-state solution with our own hands and are now heading toward a violent explosion with the Palestinians at best, or one binational state at worst.”

The negative press reaction from Israel’s Arab neighbors has been swift, but as Yedioth Ahronoth’s Smadar Perry points out, most of the Arab leaders were caught by surprise and have yet to respond in a meaningful way: “None of the leaders of the moderate Arab states ranted or even opened their mouths to respond to the statements made at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump’s press conference. There were no reactions either to the sentence that made headlines, when Trump stated nonchalantly that he doesn’t really care if the parties go for one state or two states. The commentators on the other side are looking for words and are making no effort to hide the despair. Among the polite ones, Trump is an enigma. Others are ready to swear that he is mainly ignorant on regional affairs and prefers to jump over puddles....An Arab summit is being planned in Amman at the end of next month. If they manage to overcome their internal battles, it won’t be a pleasant event for Israel. Jihad al-Hazen, one of the leading commentators in the Arab world, is already calling on Egypt and Jordan to announce that they are cancelling their peace agreements with Israel, in order to make Trump and his emissaries get their hands dirty.”

The editorial board at The National (UAE) calls for “further clarification” from the Americans, warning that renouncing the promise of an independent Palestinian state would cause turmoil in the region: “Make no mistake, those who believe a one-state solution would be easy, favorable to Israel or could be agreed behind the backs of the Palestinians will be making a serious, indeed deadly, miscalculation. The only people who welcome a one-state solution fall into two camps, at the extreme ends of Palestinian and Israeli politics....So there are challenges either way. Moreover, there is … inertia in the international community in favor of the two-state solution — decades of diplomacy, resolutions and politics have followed that basic idea. In the Arab world, too, the idea of a Palestinian state is strong. The basic injustice of the dispossession of the Palestinians must be redressed....The U.S. therefore needs to think carefully about its next moves. Israel’s right-wing leaders don’t care how much fuel they pour on the fire. America should be more careful.”

In another editorial, the Saudi Gazette staff expresses concern over what Mr. Trump’s statements imply and argues that the Americans have removed any doubts about their lack of objectivity in the matter: “All the indications are that Trump is prepared to drop the long-standing U.S. policy toward the Palestinians and in effect tear up the internationally accepted road map based on the Saudi peace plan advanced by King Abdullah. This being the case, the question is: What is Trump proposing in its place? Anything less than an independent state for the Palestinians is clearly going to be unacceptable, not just to the Palestinians themselves, but to the wider Arab world, if not indeed much of the international community....Trump appears ready to abandon the fig leaf of objectivity over a Palestinian settlement and make clear, if not indeed revel in America’s slavish support for Israel. This, in fact, will be an advance in the peace process because for the first time, Washington’s core policy position will be abundantly open. The decks will have been cleared.”

That is also the message of Ramzy Baroud, who, in a recent op-ed for Ma’an News, argues that the election of Mr. Trump has brought an end to “doublespeak” on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: “Empirical historical evidence combined with a little common sense are enough to tell us the type of future options that Israel has in store for the Palestinian people: perpetual apartheid or ethnic cleansing, or a mix of both. The passage of the 'Regularization Bill' on Feb. 6 is all we need to imagine the Israeli-envisaged future. The new law allows the Israeli government to retroactively recognize Jewish outposts built without official permission on privately owned Palestinian land....Since Donald Trump was sworn in, Israel has felt liberated from its obligation to doublespeak. For decades, Israeli officials spoke passionately about peace, and did everything in their power to hinder its attainment. Now, they simply do not care. Period....Indeed, it is Israel's obstinacy that is now leaving Palestinians (and Israelis) with one option, and only one option: equal citizenship in one single state or a horrific apartheid and more ethnic cleansing.”

For Al-Monitor’s Uri Savir, though, the recent developments demand more, rather than less engagement between the Palestinian leaders and the Trump administration, and it appears that is exactly what PA officials are setting out to do: “A senior PLO official close to President Mahmoud Abbas told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that, despite what seems like U.S.-Israeli collusion, the Palestinian leadership will attempt to engage with the Trump administration on a different set of understandings, leading to a two-state solution process....Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who keeps regular contact with the new U.S. administration, and Jordanian King Abdullah II, who briefly met with Trump on Feb. 2, advised Abbas not to give up on Trump and to engage with the new administration. According to this pragmatic Arab view, one must distinguish between Trump’s White House staff — which includes his adviser Steve Bannon — and the secretaries of state and defense....The Palestinian source said that the Palestinian leadership will suggest to the U.S. administration a series of confidence-building measures between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel, provided they lead to negotiations for a two-state solution.

 Shlomi Eldar gives a bit more context into the mixed feelings that Palestinian negotiators have toward Trump in a report published on Al-Monitor, “The mood among Palestinians surrounding President Mahmoud Abbas wavers between desperation and hope and between cautious optimism and dire pessimism….Trump's comments on Feb. 15 therefore left them stunned....At the same time, however, the Palestinians also believe that the new administration realizes that it cannot act rashly and impetuously when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, it must follow in the footsteps of previous administrations, with certain adjustments to reflect Trump's personal approach. The Palestinians were feeling optimistic after a series of discussions that Majid Faraj, head of the Palestinian Security Services, had in Washington the second week in February and a meeting between Abbas and CIA Director Mike Pompeo Feb. 14 at Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters in Ramallah....Given the situation, however, the PA's leadership is interested in one thing only — a meeting at the White House between Trump and Abbas as soon as possible.”

For Gulf News’s Fawaz Turki, it is clear that the options for a peaceful solution to the conflict are disappearing, with a return to violence threatening to be the only option left for frustrated Palestinians: “Those naive Palestinians, along with other equally naive Arabs, who had expectations that United States President Donald Trump, during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, would not upend decades of American diplomacy by shelving the two-state solution, suddenly had to disabuse themselves of those expectations. What the businessman-turned-president has called his ‘ultimate deal’ for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a deal that, it now appears, had existed only in his fertile imagination....Israelis know what they want — an apartheid state, and they are doing their best to solidify its foundation. And the Palestinians also know what they want — independence and freedom in their own sovereign state on that remnant of their ancient patrimony. But the Palestinians cannot achieve that by waiting for Godot. They should get the stones out....The day will come, folks, when Israel will never know what hit it.”


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