The “two-state solution” for peace in the Middle East has been on life-support for some years now, and many have thought it was unlikely to survive a Trump presidency. Now we have confirmation.
Hosting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington yesterday, Donald Trump veered away from the old verities of American policy. Asked whether he was “ready to give up” the two-state solution and “willing to hear different ideas” from Netanyahu, he responded as follows:
So 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.
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.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, left no room for doubt about his demands. He insisted that “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River” and referred to the whole area as “our ancestral homeland.” It is clear that he will never accept anything that could reasonably be described as a Palestinian state.
From the point of view of Netanyahu and his fellow hardliners, Trump is the most sympathetic president they have ever had. But he is also deeply unpredictable, and they must have a nagging worry that if at some point their interests should conflict with some new Trumpian enthusiasm, he would throw them under the bus without a second thought.
In any case, being pro-Likud is not enough to determine what line to follow. Although we know what Netanyahu doesn’t want, we are as far from ever from pinning down just what he does want. No-one has responded to my challenge from last month to specify just what future shape for the region the hardliners have in mind.
One senior Israeli official, however, has had his say: President Reuven Rivlin, who is hostile to Netanyahu despite his Likud background, this week endorsed annexation of the whole of the West Bank, but on the basis of giving full Israeli citizenship to all its inhabitants.
Likud has more or less seriously promoted annexation for decades. But it has always foundered on the rock of what to do about the Palestinians. To admit them to citizenship risks jeopardising the Jewish nature of the state; to deny it to them means giving up on Israel’s promise of equal rights and inviting charges of apartheid. And any third solution raises fears of ethnic cleansing.
Trump’s and Rivlin’s remarks, however, taken together, hint at a likely outcome. There will be just one state, and it will happen, to start with, on Israel’s terms. Israel will annex the territories – probably piecemeal rather than all at once – and will try to forestall the demographic consequences of that by keeping the Palestinians in a second-class status.
Annexation would remove much of the complexity of the issue. Instead of an endless argument about lines on the map and the powers of different authorities, there would be the single question of full rights for the whole population, much as there was in South Africa. And as with South Africa, world opinion would have a clear target on which to make itself felt.
In the medium term there would probably be some compromise: for example, Palestinians would be given full voting rights, but gerrymandered in some way to diminish their political impact. They would still face discrimination, as Israel’s Arab citizens do today. But there would be chances for progress that seem entirely lacking in the present situation.
This, of course, is not what Palestinians really want, and it understandable they would be reluctant to settle for it. Nadia Hijab argues that this is not the time to be giving up on the “Green Line”, the pre-1967 boundary, and likens absorption of the West Bank to the Russian annexation of Crimea. The principle that national borders cannot be changed by force is fundamental to the international order.
Nonetheless, just as Crimea is not going to revert to Ukraine, the realistic chance of Palestinian statehood is now off the table. Faute de mieux, a one-state solution of some sort is the most likely outcome, and those who believe in democracy and human rights may well be best advised to focus on making that option work.