The two-state solution — that is, the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel — has been the basic working end-point of US and international policy regarding peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians for years.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump backed away from the policy with little more than a shrug.
President Bill Clinton was the first US president to officially endorse the policy of a two-state solution, just before leaving office in 2001, though the idea had existed before then. Every year since, both Republicans and Democrats have stood by the policy. Barack Obama used his final press conference as president to underscore how important he believed the two-state solution was to the prospects of peace.
At a press conference with a giddy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump announced he had once thought the two-state solution was the right one, but now:
I’m looking at a 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 could 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 [Netanyahu] and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.
At first blush, that might seem to make sense. After all, if the Israelis and Palestinians were able to come up with a workable agreement — one state, two states, something in between — why would the United States artificially insist on some other outcome?
But that position fails to take into account the context of the history of the conflict and the attempted negotiations of the past three decades. For years, the US has pushed for a two-state solution because, most analysts agree, there has never been a workable alternative option. In part that is because the negotiating parties simply do not share the same power in negotiations. It’s also because a single state has never been what the majority of Palestinians or Israelis actually want.
By abandoning an American-led, negotiated two-state solution, Trump is essentially giving up on the idea of there ever being a real, internationally recognized sovereign Palestinian state. Many Israelis and Palestinians believe that outcome would not only destroy any hope for peace between the two sides, leading to years of violence. They believe it could fundamentally alter, if not destroy, the Jewish and democratic state of Israel as we know it.
Hopes of reaching a two-state solution have been diminishing in recent years. Trump may have just put the nail in the coffin.
In a scorching speech delivered on December 28, 2016, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “the two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“It is the only way to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace and security with its neighbors,” Kerry said. “It is the only way to ensure a future of freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people.”
Then he issued a dire warning:
Despite our best efforts over the years, the two state solution is now in serious jeopardy. The truth is that trends on the ground — violence, terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation — are destroying hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want.
His last point is critical to understanding this issue: A single state is something most Israelis and Palestinians actively reject.
That’s because Palestinians want their own sovereign state and Israel wants to maintain its character as both a Jewish and a democratic state. Those two things are, likely, only possible with two states, for two peoples.
In part that is because of demographics: Absorbing the Palestinian population would eventually result in there being more Palestinians than Jews in the country. To maintain a democratic state, with equal rights for all people, Israel would have to cede its Jewish character. The alternative is undemocratic — giving Palestinians unequal rights and treating them as second-class citizens.
This is why the US has long pushed for a two-state solution.
Though Netanyahu expressed tepid support for a demilitarized independent Palestinian state in 2009, ever since then he has seemed to walk back even that position. He is under tremendous pressure domestically from his right flank to reject it altogether. Naftali Bennett, of the far-right Israel Home Party, demanded that Netanyahu refrain from even using the term “Palestinian state” during this visit to Washington.
During the press conference, Netanyahu dodged the question of whether he supports a two-state solution. “I want to deal with substance, not labels. The world is fixated on labels and not on the substance,” he said. “But if anyone believes that I, as prime minister of Israel, responsible for the security of my country, would blindly walk into a Palestinian terrorist state that seeks the destruction of my country, they're gravely mistaken.”
Now that it seems Trump is prepared to stop pushing for a two-state solution altogether, the ball drops into Netanyahu’s court to play, or ignore. And that likely means a continuation of the status quo — or, as John Kerry described it, a slow slide into a one-state reality.
For years, “the US has provided the context, direction, and goal of a political process toward a two-state outcome, that goal began to diminish under Netanyahu and has collapsed under Trump,” says Daniel Seidemann, director of the Israeli nonprofit Terrestrial Jerusalem and a frequent backroom adviser to diplomats.
“The United States has [served as] the breaking mechanism that has prevented endless numbers of bad things from happening by willingness to engage,” says Seidemann. “That is gone.”
Trump said he supports whatever makes both Israelis and Palestinians happy. But he doesn’t seem to have asked any Palestinians what would actually make them happy.
Across the Palestinian world, the reaction to Trump’s pull back on the two-state solution was concern and dismay.
A change in policy, Hanan Ashrawi, a longtime Palestinian senior official, told the AFP simply “does not make sense.”
"This is not a responsible policy and it does not serve the cause of peace," she said to reporters. "They cannot just say that without an alternative."
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, notes that the talk of the end of a two-state solution, or the taking of that solution off the table, was always spoken in dire terms because “the alternative is something the US cannot morally support which is a de facto apartheid state.”
Daniel Seidemann points out the two-state solution was always an idea of the “end of occupation” — Israel’s occupation of the West Bank — “in exchange for recognized borders, legitimacy and security. Netanyahu is now [potentially agreeing to] legitimacy and security but — no real end of occupation.”
Seidemann was referring to a moment in the press conference when the Israeli prime minister insisted that the Israeli military forces would continue to stay in the West Bank, whatever the outcome of a peace process, in order to guarantee Israeli security. That is an idea that would surely be met with opposition by Palestinians, yet Netanyahu set it as one of the preconditions for peace.
“We saw a crescendo at end of the Obama administration,” says Seidemann, of the beginnings of a “coherent international consensus on two states.”
“What we saw today was the counter revolution to that,” he says.
But where Trump really sits, no one really knows
Trump’s position on peace, Israel, and the Palestinians has meandered quite a bit both throughout his campaign and since he took office.
Back in February of 2016, when the Republican field of candidates was crowded, Trump said he would be “neutral” as an interlocutor between Palestinians and Israelis.
Two months earlier, at the Republican Jewish Coalition, he seemed to take a more negative stance on Israel. “I don’t know that Israel has the commitment” to make a peace deal, he said. He also declined to say if he believed Jerusalem was the undivided capital of Israel. He was booed.
By the time he spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in March 2016, he spoke of there being “no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel.”
As time went on, he became even more supportive of Israel. After the election, his team invited prominent leaders of Israel’s controversial settler movement to attend his inauguration, and the administration issued a statement saying that settlements in occupied Palestinian territories were not “an impediment to peace” — a retraction of 50 years of American foreign policy.
That position on settlement building seemed to shift again just after inauguration. In an interview with Israel HaYom, Trump took yet another position:
Q: We heard from Washington this week that settlements are not an impediment to the peace process. I guess this is an issue you and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are going to discuss?
"They [settlements] don't help the process. I can say that. There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we'll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."
In his press conference this week, he lightheartedly teased Netanyahu that the Israeli leader would have to “hold back” on the settlements for a “little bit.” But he also told the Israeli leader he would have to compromise, too. “You realize that, right?” he said.
So it remains to be seen what the Trump administration will actually do.
Indeed, Daniel Levy, a former peace negotiator and current president of the US Middle East Project, even suggested that Trump’s hands-off position could be seen as a “smartly disruptive move” which will force Israelis to actually look at the real alternatives in a colder light.
“If the two-state solution is to be salvaged, it will only be salvaged by the threat of one state, which is probably [not wanted] by majority of Israelis,” he said.