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Trump and Palestine – so what now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump during a joint news conference at the White House on February 15, 2016 [File photo]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump during a joint news conference at the White House on February 15, 2016 [File photo]

Before Donald Trump’s inauguration, it was a safe bet to assume that his administration’s approach to Israel and the Palestinians would either be one of relative neglect, or serve as a boost to the far-right Israeli nationalists who seek annexation of all or parts of the West Bank.

Either, of course, would spell trouble for the Palestinians. So far, and particularly after Trump’s meeting this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it would appear to be a combination of the two.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Trump revealed himself to be ambivalent about a two-state solution. In his words: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, 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.”

With respect to Israel’s settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), Trump was similarly dismissive: “As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out.” Certainly no slap on the wrists – barely even friendly advice.

Trump’s comments have led many to infer that his administration is abandoning the two-state solution; a White House statement on 2 February referred to the goal of “peace” but did not mention Palestinian statehood. So, is the two-state solution dead – and what does that mean?

Israel’s maximum doesn’t meet the Palestinian minimum

Ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, a White House official prepared the ground for Trump’s one-state bombshell by telling reporters that “peace is the goal, whether it comes in the form of a two-state solution…or something else.” But the unnamed official also made quite a perceptive comment, observing: “If I ask five people what a two-state solution is, I get eight different answers.”

Let’s take Netanyahu. In his famous 2009 speech, the Israeli premier backed a “Palestinian state”, provided that the state would be demilitarised, and, “if the Palestinians recognise Israel as the Jewish state.” That is as good as it has ever got; Netanyahu was already beating a retreat in 2015, and since the last election, has headed a government packed with openly rejectionist ministers.

But let’s suppose Netanyahu does support a “two-state solution”; what does this Palestinian “state” look like? While we already knew it must be demilitarised, alongside Trump, Netanyahu declared that “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River” – a much more expansive condition, and a recipe for permanent occupation.

We also know Netanyahu sees Israel retaining all of Jerusalem as its “undivided capital”, and – at the very least – believes Israel would retain major West Bank settlements such as those clustered in the southern West Bank (Gush Etzion), Ma’ale Adumim in the centre, and Ariel in the north. A completed Separation Wall would, presumably, become the new “border”.

Combine that with a permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, and his Palestinian “state” is nothing more than cantons. Or, as Netanyahu put it more directly to a Likud parliamentarian recently: “What I’m willing to give to the Palestinians is not exactly a state with full authority, but rather a state-minus, which is why the Palestinians don’t agree [to it].”

But, and this is the crucial point, Netanyahu was not the first to strip the term “state” of its real meaning – and others have done so without prompting the same outrage.

Take the Israeli opposition Zionist Camp, dominated by the Isaac Herzog-led Labor party. Their 2015 election platform insisted that a “Palestinian state” would be demilitarised, “the settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]” would be “under Israeli sovereignty”, and Jerusalem would be Israel’s “eternal capital”. Herzog also declared the Jordan River would be Israel’s “security border”.

These are neither the parameters of a genuine Palestinian state, nor a million miles away from what we can deduce Netanyahu imagines a Palestinian “state” to look like. So why is Herzog so furious with what he says is the prime minister’s refusal to “separate” from the Palestinians?

One difference, of course, is that Netanyahu’s willingness or ability to establish even a canton-style Palestinian state is hampered by those within Likud and coalition partners like the Jewish Home who back formal annexation of all or parts of the West Bank. Even putting aside Bibi’s own views, he is dependent on such a constituency to remain in power.

Annexation would be a dramatic and permanent rejection of the two-state solution – and one that the Western guardians of the peace process could not ignore. The Labor party, by contrast, are part of a milieu described perceptively by the Associated Press as “the more sophisticated nationalists [who] profess to support a partition – albeit on terms the Palestinians aren’t likely to accept.”

That neither the “sophisticated” nor the less sophisticated nationalists are willing to grant Palestinians genuine statehood and their basic rights is well illustrated by noting who Netanyahu echoed when he talked in recent weeks of a Palestinian “state-minus”. The answer? None other than former Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1995 – shortly before he was assassinated – declared that a final status agreement would see the establishment of a Palestinian “entity which is less than a state”.

This week, an article in the New York Times got it spot on when it acknowledged how “the Israeli idea of Palestinian statehood never included all of the attributes of full sovereignty.” The piece continued: “Many experts have long said that the maximum Israel can offer does not meet the minimum Palestinian requirements.”

And this is precisely the nub of the issue: Israel’s “maximum” on the one hand, versus Palestinian rights (and international law) on the other. A quarter century-long peace process has served to obfuscate this basic point, and fuelled the illusion that – in the words of Trump – a solution can be found that “both parties like”. Now that illusion is coming to an end.

So, yes, the “two-state solution” is dead, but the more important point is that it was never really alive – at least not with respect to what Israel’s leaders were ever prepared to allow without the international pressure and accountability that, to date, has never materialised.

So what now?

Going forward then, what are the likely scenarios? An uninvolved, hands-off approach from Trump means more of the asymmetrical status quo, a situation likely preferred by Netanyahu and one which, as we reach 50 years of Israeli military rule over non-citizen Palestinians, already constitutes an apartheid system. Netanyahu can also continue to buy time by insisting on conditions – or “prerequisites” – that he knows the Palestinians cannot accept.

Trump, meanwhile, though no doubt already being warned by the likes of Jordan’s King Abdullah about the dangers of demolishing the remaining pretences of the two-state paradigm, is also presumably cognizant of the fact that he reached the White House thanks in no small part to the support of zealously pro-Israel, evangelical Christians.

There are those who will continue to profess the plausibility of a two-state solution, either, like Dennis Ross, on the basis that land swaps and so-called settlement blocs are a silver bullet (they’re not), or those like Aaron David Miller, who even when comparing the two-state paradigm to the tooth fairy, insists that “sometimes fiction is useful” (on the basis that it is the “least bad solution”).

Other developments are hard to predict; new Israeli elections, for example, could return a differently-constituted coalition government – but as previously discussed, not one that will be prepared to offer the Palestinians the minimum required for a genuine two-state solution. Another possibility is a new wave of resistance from Palestinians on the ground.

Which leads on to the options facing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA). While a two-state solution is backed by a plurality – though not necessarily a majority – of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most also believe that such an outcome is unlikely, at least in the short to medium term.

The combination of Palestinian disillusion and weakening support for a two-state solution, with a Trump-Netanyahu alliance that could well dispense with it all together, presents Abbas and senior officials with a challenge they seem ill-equipped to handle. Empty threats – even appeals to anti-Iranian sentiment in Washington – are not a strategy.

This week, Abbas’ office announced that “the Palestinian leadership is prepared to work positively with Donald Trump’s administration”, spinning the US president’s off-the-cuff remark about settlements as a formal demand for a construction “freeze”. According to Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani: “The PA is eager for more contacts with the new administration. It is focusing on that rather than how best to confront and contain the new policies that may emerge from this meeting.”

Depressingly, even reaching that “confront and contain” stage is insufficient for these times. The urgency now is for new strategies and the reinvigoration – or reinventing – of the bodies and mechanisms necessary to implement them. Trump must be the time when a failed strategy of appealing to Western governments’ largesse is abandoned for a cocktail of creative – and costly – approaches that prioritise internal and external levers of pressure.

As Amira Hass pointed out this week, even if past US administrations did nothing to stop Israel from thwarting a two-state solution, “their declarations and promises enabled the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to lie to itself and to its people that this was the solution the great power supported.”

This lie was “one of the tools with which the leadership of the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation], Fatah and Palestinian Authority marketed the rationale for its existence. This lie helped it to justify keeping its agreements with Israel, including the security coordination.”

The time of illusions is ending, but it is important that new ones do not take their place: for example, decisions about the fate of the PA are not simple, and involve the livelihoods of many Palestinians. Similarly, the fight to transform an apartheid, one-state into a decolonised, democratic one will not be quick or easy, and, as has always been the case, Palestinians will pay the biggest price.

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