Tel Aviv — With the peace process mothballed for years and ties between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Washington as cozy as ever, it had been a while since the words had been mentioned by a senior U.S. official.
But when President Donald Trump said last week in a press conference with Netanyahu that he believes that the two-state solution is still the best path to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the utterance threw a political hot potato into the hands of the Israeli leader at a time when a Palestinian state has been disavowed by nearly every politician on the right.
Though Netanyahu responded that he would agree to a demilitarized Palestinian state with Israeli security control in the West Bank, Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted out a veiled threat to withdraw his party from the coalition.
“President Trump is a true friend of Israel,” wrote Netanyahu’s right-wing rival. “At the same time, it’s important to emphasize that as long as the Jewish Home [party] is in the government, there won’t be a Palestinian state — which is a disaster for Israel.”
Avigdor Lieberman, another rival on the right, swatted off the Trump remark. “A Palestinian state doesn’t interest me,” said the Israeli defense minister, even though he has expressed support for the idea in the past.
Israeli politicians, Netanyahu included, have been avoiding references to a Palestinian state for years, especially after the election of Trump. U.S. officials have avoided mentioning the two-state solution as well.
Netanyahu and Trump seem to be so synchronized that the Trump remark spurred questions of whether Netanyahu was surprised by it. On the other hand, Trump has twice suggested that he would exact a price from Israel in peace talks for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
In a statement following the president’s remark, the White House tried to walk back Trump’s remark, backing off the seeming commitment to creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
But some peace advocates say that Trump’s remarks were an important signal from the U.S. administration that the two-state solution remains Washington’s preferred path to peace rather than a one-state solution. Indeed, the administration has been promising to unveil a peace plan of its own, and Palestinians, Israelis and other major players in the region have been waiting to see what formula Trump’s peace team comes up with. In one of Trump’s first meetings with Netanyahu, the president said he was equally open to the idea of a one-state solution, which many Israelis see as a threat to Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.
Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said that while he doesn’t expect a deal any time soon, Trump’s remark is encouraging because it probably reflects the thinking of his peace team that a two-state solution remains the best option for a deal.
“It’s probably what he heard from the team that is working on it. It’s creating a certain atmosphere of sending a message after studying the issue,” Liel said. “It’s bringing back the two-state solution as the only game in town in the international community. The Americans understand that there is no other solution.”
On the day after the Trump remarks, Netanyahu, in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, made several provocative revelations about the alleged location of Iranian nuclear sites and Hezbollah missile stockpiles in Lebanon. Netanyahu’s 40-minute speech, in which he revealed pictures from classified Israeli intelligence, won him near unanimous praise back in Israel for his rhetorical skills and for putting Iran and Hezbollah on the defensive in the realm of public relations.
However, some saw it as a dangerous escalation of rhetoric. “Where is all of this leading us, except to a war with Iran,” wrote Yossi Verter, a political columnist at Haaretz. Others faulted Netanyahu for making almost no mention of the peace talks with the Palestinians. “As if this isn’t a fundamental issue that divides Israel … whoever expected something new on this was disappointed,” wrote Nadav Menuchin on the Walla! News website.
The most immediate problem is that the U.S. status as peace mediator has taken a blow. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and cut U.S. aid to the Palestinians has spurred a crisis with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ government in Ramallah.
The dialogue between the top levels of the two governments has all but halted. That has delayed U.S. efforts to get a Palestinian buy-in on a framework for peace plan. Without any Palestinian willingness to work with a U.S. initiative, it won’t be taken seriously by the rest of the international community. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly last week, Abbas said that the Palestinians would not accept the U.S. as the sole mediator in the peace process because Washington had become too biased toward Israel.
Amid that crisis, the sides seem to have returned to square one. Trump’s remarks and Netanyahu’s response reflect the broad and unclear nature of what exactly is meant by a “Palestinian state.”
Trump’s peace team, headed by Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt “seem to think that putting forward a plan with sovereign rights for the Palestinians is a good idea,” said Tal Schneider, an Israeli diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli financial daily Globes.
“Netanyahu has his own ideas when he talks about sovereign rights for the Palestinians. Each side uses the terms with a vague and wide meaning.”
Despite the remarks of Bennett, Schneider said that she didn’t think that the return of “Palestinian state” to the Trump lexicon would destabilize the coalition. As long as Netanyahu and Trump remain closely allied and coordinated, the Israeli prime minister would remain relatively immune to attacks from the right over his handling of the Palestinians, she said.
“Netanyahu is saying no withdrawal of security forces, no Palestinian border with Jordan, no withdrawal of settlements and no compromise on Jerusalem. It’s actually what they have now. He’s saying let’s give them what they have now, and just call it a state,” she said. “On the other side, I can see Trump going along with this rebranding and declaring the problem solved, just like he did with North Korea.”
Though the Israeli media predictably highlighted the Trump remarks, until the president and the U.S. administration produce a plan, it will be hard for anyone to gauge the president’s commitment to a Palestinian state, said one former U.S. official.
Trump “has said enough for some observers to hear something new, particularly in terms of a two-state solution, but he’s also said enough in other settings for people to conclude there’s no change in approach,” said Scott Lasensky, a former senior adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“The proof is in the pudding, and unless the peace plan that’s been talked about is released, we won’t know.”