You could almost hear the collective gasp in the echo-chamber of Washington-based Middle East policy circles when President Donald Trump made comments backing away from the “two-state solution,” which has been a centerpiece of peace policy for the last 15 years.
On its face it seems like a dramatic shift and perhaps just another shocking development to come from a White House that has little or no experience in serious foreign policy matters. But in reality, it is neither all that dramatic, nor the product of an ignorant President’s negligence.
Skepticism about the viability of a two-state solution was increasingly and consistently voiced by the last Administration. Then Secretary Kerry declared it had 2 years left at most, just under four years ago. President Obama explained he allowed a recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements to pass because of the degree of jeopardy facing the two-state solution. The Obama Administration was merely laying the foundation for getting the public to accept a situation dictated by the reality on the ground. For the next administration - Trump’s - to begin a conversation about alternatives is not a break but rather the logical next step.
Incidentally, this is not merely a Trump gaffe. The White House backed away from the two-state solution in a statement the night before the Trump/Netanyahu press conference and the 2016 GOP platform removed any mention of it. The question is, what does a one-state alternative look like?
Well, as far as the Israeli government and Benjamin Netanyahu are concerned, they want to retain all the land. In his comments with Trump, Netanyahu said the Israelis were not occupiers in Judea, a biblical term for part of the occupied West Bank. He stated plainly that in any agreement Israel would ”retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.” In other words, no Palestinian state. Israel would only accept one state between the river and the sea. What rights Palestinians would have are not clear and, to Netanyahu, unimportant.
Such ideas have been swirling in Israel for about as long as it has occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Some Israelis want to annex large parts of the West Bank and dump the unannexed Palestinians off to Jordan, which they consider a Palestinian state. Some wish to annex all of it and give Palestinians limited rights but not citizenship. Others still speak of annexing all the West Bank and giving Palestinians Israeli citizenship, believing they could still retain a Jewish majority. This of course does not include Gaza, whose two million Palestinians they would seek to dump off to Egypt or keep trapped in their current open air prison.
But what do the Palestinians think of this? What if the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Palestinians don’t agree? The Israelis conjuring up such apartheid nightmares never stopped to think about the consent of Palestinians and Arabs. Since the Palestinians will never willfully agree to further dispossession, there are few options remaining; forced displacement, continuing the the status quo ad infinitum, or equal rights for all. The first two options should be unacceptable to all in the 21st century. This leaves but one option left; equality for all.
This is a difficult reality for many to accept. For Israelis, this means accepting the idea that a Jewish democracy in the land of Palestine is not possible. For Palestinians, this means accepting the idea of a largely homogeneous state for Palestinians is also not possible. Leaders of both communities must begin breaking this hard reality to their people and in doing so accept accountability for all that has been lost while heading in the wrong directions.
The questions we must now face are how do we make this a reality? What do the compromises both sides have to make look like? What does the process for getting there look like? What incentives or disincentives need to be provided to move the parties in this direction? These are not easy questions to answer, in part because this very necessary discussion has been suppressed for so long by a global policy community that has refused to deviate an inch from the two-state orthodoxy.
We have spent unending hours and pages debating the path of a line between countless settlements and villages. But the lines we must now explore moving forward are those that must be drawn in a political agreement, or a constitution, that balances the collective aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians with a full realization of each peoples’ human rights.
Some might ask what if Israelis don't agree to equal rights, just as Palestinians won't agree to dispossession? That is a likelihood. Just as whites in the southern U.S. and Afrikaaners were reluctant to accept the reform of systems that privileged them at the expense of others, no group, including Israeli Jews, will be quick to accept such reform. They will have to be compelled to make this choice, as in the case of South Africa, by an international community that rejects the apartheid alternative.
President Trump may have opened the door to this conversation, but he certainly isn’t going to be the one pushing the parties to where they need to go. He is unlikely to object to the status quo. That is precisely why Netanyahu, who knows this, loves Trump and bet heavily on the Republican party in recent years even at the cost of politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship. He knows the GOP base has a strong affinity with Zionism including xenophobia, nativism, racism and, in many corners, a belief that the state exists to protect the dominance of one ethno-religious group.
But there will be a day, many more settlements later, after Trump. Perhaps in eight years or four or less. Then what? When the U.S. emerges from this crazy majoritarian moment and refocuses on the values of inclusion and equality that truly make it great, it will find itself estranged from an Israel that has doubled-down on apartheid.
Perhaps that is when the conversation Trump has begun starts to translate into action.