If you read the headlines and some of the editorial comment immediately following the meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, you might conclude that much has changed and that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now in jeopardy, or even dead. The focus was on President Trump’s statements that he is “looking at two-state and one-state” formulations and “I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
If, however, you consider all that the president and prime minister said and what has been said since, you should conclude that the two-state outcome remains the most viable possibility to bring peace to the region eventually.
To be sure, the president, in opening the possibility that he would be comfortable with something other than a two-state outcome, departed from decades of U.S. policy that was rooted in “two states for two peoples.” But the rest the sentence–“I like the one that both parties like”—indicated Trump was not jettisoning that policy. And his other comments, noting that both sides must compromise, “a deal can be made,” and asking Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit confirm his “two-state” position.
Further, these statements are consistent the president’s position before the meeting. Ten days before the meeting a “senior official” said that further settlement building would not be helpful. Probably most telling are the statements made by Ambassador designate David Friedman and U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Nikki Haley the day after the meeting. Friedman, a heretofore opponent of a two-state outcome, said at his confirmation hearing that the two-state solution had received “the most thought and effort and consideration” and “still remains the best possibility for peace in the region.” In answer to a question after a U.N. Security Council meeting devoted to the Israel-Palestinian issue, Ambassador Haley said: “We absolutely support a two-state solution.”
The real question, then, is: what do the parties “like”? Post-meeting statements suggest that Israeli and Palestinian leadership remain committed to a two-state outcome. In his post-meeting press conference with the Israeli press, Netanyahu cited the position he articulated in his Bar-Ilan speech in 2008, in which he embraced the two-state outcome, and said his views have not changed. “I said it before, and I will repeat it again, I don’t want to annex close to 2.5 million Palestinians to Israel,” he said. “I do not want them to be our subjects.”
Not only does this confirm that the prime minister is not interested in a one-state outcome, it is a direct response to the call of Naftali Bennett, head of the Israel Home party and Netanyahu’s chief rival on the right, to annex Area C, which covers 65 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinian leadership, too, remains committed to a two-state outcome. A Palestinian spokesperson said last week: “Rejection of the two-state solution is rejection of the peace process.” This position is totally consistent with past statements in which Palestinian leadership continuously complains that Israeli action — whether it is expanding existing or building additional settlements or legalizing outposts – makes the achievement of that goal more difficult, if not impossible.
These positions reflect the views of the Israeli and Palestinian people. A December poll conducted by two respected polling organizations, one Israeli and one Palestinian, shows that 55 percent of Israelis and 44 percent of Palestinians support the solution based on the establishment of a Palestinian state –the percentage of Palestinians supporting a two-state outcome increases when details such as free movement are added. Only 24 percent of Israelis and 36 percent of Palestinians support a one-state solution.
It think it safe to say that we will hear little more about this issue from the Trump administration, which has a full plate of pressing concerns. It is more difficult to predict what will happen in Israel. Two issues, however, will likely come to the fore. One is the test in the Supreme Court of the legality of the recent Knesset legislation legalizing outposts in the West Bank claimed to be built on Palestinian land which were previously acknowledged, even by Jerusalem, to be illegal. The other is the bill proposing the annexation of the large settlement community of Maale Adumim and 60 acres of vacant land to its north and west. As to the former, the attorney general, a respected lawyer who was appointed by the prime minister, has said that he cannot defend the law. As to the latter, the right-wing members of the governing coalition will no doubt press for annexation.
The prime minister now can caution that such action is precisely the kind of unilateral action that the U.S. will view unfavorably.
Robert Sugarman is former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. His views are his own.