The hard-line settler activist Nadia Matar was buoyant when I called her on Sunday. She had barely finished her flagship annual event when Donald Trump took her plan for Israel’s future off the sidelines and threw it into the spotlight.
“The timing was unbelievable,” said Matar, whose campaign and annual conferences have pushed the idea of Israel annexing the West Bank onto the Israeli agenda. To her, it wasn’t just exciting hearing Trump break with long-standing U.S. policy that the two-state solution is the only game in town, but the timing — just after she held her conference — “was, as religious people say, from heaven.”
In comments that raised eyebrows on the left and provoked joy on the right, Trump said that he’s open to whichever path takes Israel and the Palestinians to a deal. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
He added: “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.”
Matar and her Women in Green organization think this is a carte blanche for Israel to choose the reality it wants. “The way I interpret it is that there’s a revolution in the U.S. [and the administration] is saying we won’t impose a solution on you,” Matar said. “But whatever is [favored] — a one- or two- or 24-state solution — just tell us and we will respect that and help you to implement that.”
We shouldn’t underestimate one-state activists like Matar. They have managed to get masses of attention, and while Matar’s first “sovereignty” campaign events six years ago attracted small numbers, there were 1,000 people at this year’s conference. But their relevance isn’t necessarily what it seems — just as Trump’s comments don’t really merit jubilation on the Israeli right.
Trump didn’t say that he’ll rubber-stamp whatever solution Israel wants. Let’s recall that he said he will be “very happy with the one that both parties like” and “can live with either” a one-state or two-state arrangement. What is he saying that is new? It’s almost a truism to say that when you’re trying to help in a conflict between two parties, if they both agree on a wild-card solution, you’ll give it your blessing.
If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had gone to President Barack Obama saying they had a rethink and both have decided a viable one-state arrangement is the way to go and they were ready to end the conflict based on a one-state model, do we really think he would have rejected it? No, but it’s so inconceivable that the same one-state arrangement could appeal to both sides that it isn’t worth discussing. The thing that matters is that Trump, the life-long dealmaker, has not departed from the belief that any solution must come from an agreed deal, and that’s what matters — he’s not putting everything in Israel’s hands as Matar would like to believe.
In a similar vein, Israel’s one-state activists have a bark that’s bigger than their bite. Only 1 in 5 Israeli Jews want a one-state solution, according to a poll released this week. What is more, even in the settlements where you would expect support to be far higher, it stands at only 26 percent. Some one-staters may have been put off by the fact that the surveyors from Tel Aviv University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research specified that they were talking about an arrangement “by which Palestinians and Jews will be citizens of the same state and enjoy equal rights.” But not enough people would have answered a differently worded question to give one-statism major backing.
The importance of the loud one-state movement is more conceptual in deflating support for the two-state solution and the sense that negotiations are urgent.
In August 2010 I went to a house in Rana’ana to interview a settler leader who, paradoxically, lived in this suburb near Tel Aviv. I went in reflecting on the fact that the settler right, then weak in the Knesset, struggled to present any coherent vision for what should happen if there isn’t a two-state solution. I emerged from the house feeling that this era was changing — not necessarily with a vision that adds up, but one that can be argued as an alternative. The settler leader I visited was Naftali Bennett, then head of the Yesha Council lobby group and now Education Minister and head of the Jewish Home Party.
And so, as Bennett rose separately, “sovereignty” campaigns like Women in Green took hold, leaving people talking more and more about a one-state option. For some, it represents a real dream, but for many others, it allows them to be apathetic about the two-state possibility because they know that somewhere there are people giving eloquent speeches and standing behind podiums in well-known hotels outlining another option. They don’t necessarily feel any need to understand what exactly this alternative option would involve, to check whether the demographics add up, or even to endorse it in polls, but just to know it’s there, as a trusty fallback.
The same goes for Trump. He wants to show, primarily for a domestic audience, that he’s the antithesis of Obama. His predecessor had Secretary of State John Kerry declare in a speech that two states is the only way and one state would be a disaster, so Trump is saying the opposite: one state may be an option and two states isn’t the only way.
Israel’s one-state lobby has achieved nothing apart from starting the game of “telephone,” which provided a buzz-phrase for Trump’s posturing. It is celebrating simply hearing its own echo.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.