March 27, 2017 – Henry Siegman is president emeritus of the US/Middle East Project. He was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is a former head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.
Reactions by the international commentariat to Trump and Netanyahu’s joint press conference on 15 February focused largely on Trump’s pronouncements, specifically on what seemed to be his abandonment of America’s long-standing bipartisan support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. ‘I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like,’ he said. ‘I can live with either one.’ Given his ignorance of international affairs in general and the Middle East in particular, he probably had no idea of the implications of what he was saying. He declared that Palestinians will ‘have to acknowledge Israel, they’re going to have to do that,’ entirely unaware that that is exactly what they have already done, not once, but on three separate occasions: at the request of Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, in 1988; in 1993, in the context of the Oslo Accords; and again in Gaza in 1998, with Bill Clinton in attendance. Trump is probably also unaware that Netanyahu’s government has never recognised the Palestinian right to national self-determination and statehood in any part of Palestine, even though this right has been affirmed repeatedly by the UN Security Council (e.g. Resolution 242 in 1967 and Resolution 1515 in 2003) and by the International Court of Justice (in 2004).
The Palestinians never withdrew their recognition of Israel, but they have refused to endorse Israel’s decision to define its national identity in religious and ethnic terms, a demand that no country has the right to impose on other countries. Israel would never agree to such a demand by Palestinians or for that matter by any Christian country.
Far less attention has been paid to what Netanyahu said at the press conference, although it was more revealing of prospects for a two-state solution than anything Trump said. In reply to a reporter who asked whether he still supports a two-state solution, Netanyahu said he considers the terms ‘two-state’ and ‘one-state’ to be superficial ‘labels’, and that he prefers dealing with ‘substance’. ‘There are two prerequisites for peace,’ he said. ‘First, the Palestinians must recognise the Jewish state … Second, in any peace agreement, Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.’
Unlike Trump, Netanyahu is very much aware that Palestinians have recognised the State of Israel. But like Trump, Netanyahu lies shamelessly. And like Trump, who turned viciously on Obama after the outgoing president extended to him entirely undeserved consideration, Netanyahu is a total ingrate. He never acknowledged that the Palestinians recognised Israel’s legitimacy not only within the borders assigned to it in 1947 by the UN Partition Plan but also including territory assigned to the Palestinians and confiscated by Israel following its War of Independence in 1948, in defiance of Resolution 242 prohibiting the acquisition of territory as a result of war.
It was not an Israel-basher but a former prime minister and president, Shimon Peres, who noted in an interview in Israel’s Yediyot Ahoronot that ‘before Oslo, the Palestinian state’s size should have been according to the 1947 map, the UN map. In Oslo, Arafat moved from the 1947 map to the 1967 one. He gave up on 22 per cent of the West Bank. I don’t know any Arab leader who would give up 2 or 3 per cent.’ Actually, Peres misspoke. Arafat did not give up 22 per cent of the West Bank but 22 per cent of Palestine, which is fully 50 per cent of the West Bank territory the UN Partition Plan recognised as the legitimate patrimony of the Palestinian people. And Peres might also have added that he knew no Israeli leader, including himself, who would give up any part of his country’s territory. But it is Palestinian leaders who are accused by Israel of refusing to make concessions for peace, a lie US administrations consistently repeat to imply a non-existent equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian resistance to a two-state agreement.
Even before his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu announced his intention of treating 60 per cent of the West Bank – territory that the Oslo agreement designated as Area C, from which Israel was supposed to have withdrawn by 1998 – as a permanent part of Israel. So Palestinians would be left just 10 per cent of pre-partition Palestine. But with Trump in the White House, and his settlement-supporting son-in-law by his side, even this shrinkage seemed to Netanyahu too generous an accommodation to the Palestinians. He therefore announced at the White House that his second condition for a peace agreement with the Palestinians is that they agree to Israel’s retention of its military control over the entire West Bank. In plain English, what Netanyahu proposed is that Palestinians be confined permanently to enclaves in 10 per cent of Palestine, under the control of the IDF. But they are free to call that arrangement a Palestinian state.
As to Trump’s thinking, he may well have intended to repeal America’s commitment to a two-state solution, although his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has stated categorically that there was no such intention. When Trump said that he would be as happy with a one-state agreement as with a two-state one, he may have meant that he sees the one-state solution not as one of several options, but as the default if the two-state option fails. The default doesn’t require the resolution of the many permanent status issues – over the settlements, borders, security arrangements, allocation of natural resources, Jerusalem etc – that have bedevilled talks for a two-state agreement. But it does require that Palestinians within Greater Israel’s borders receive the same rights as those Israeli citizens now enjoy. It doesn’t create a new reality but confirms the existing one, brought about by Israeli design.
If that is what Trump meant to say, he has proposed what I have long believed to be the only possible path to a recovery of the two-state solution. Let me explain. Every expert believes, and every poll conducted on the subject has confirmed, that the vast majority of Israeli Jews wouldn’t agree to a one-state agreement with the Palestinians if it were likely to lead to the loss of Israel’s Jewish identity. If Israelis were to see that their government’s rejection of a two-state solution would lead to US support for a one-state solution that granted equal citizenship to West Bank Palestinians who are being denied a state of their own, Israelis would opt for a two-state accord.
If such a take on the possible implications of Trump’s remarks seems inconsistent with his reaching out to Netanyahu, it is not inconsistent with his request, however gently expressed, that Netanyahu hold off for a while on further settlement activity. It is also not inconsistent with his subsequent demand that Netanyahu not proceed with his publicly announced plans for the construction of thousands of new homes in the Occupied Territories. Similar requests made by Obama were presented by Netanyahu as anti-Semitic agitation.
If this is not what Trump intended, it doesn’t change the hard reality that the only way of retrieving the two-state option is by denying Israel the right to maintain the status quo. If Trump is serious about closing what he has described as ‘the ultimate deal’, this is the only way he will be able do it. Nevertheless, Trump’s appointment as his ambassador to Israel of David Friedman, a long-time contributor to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and an unhinged right-winger who has accused Israeli and American Jewish supporters of a two-state solution as being ‘worse than kapos’, hardly supports the notion that Trump is about to cross Netanyahu. Mark Landler has argued in the New York Times that Trump’s recent phone call to Netan-yahu as he was being interrogated by Israeli police in a bribery and fraud investigation was conveniently timed to serve as a reminder to Israel’s attorney general that indicting Netanyahu ‘could harm Israel’s national security at a dangerous time’. Landler plausibly suggests that Trump’s ‘timely’ call reciprocated Netanyahu’s ‘timely’ praise for Trump’s belated stand against anti-Semitism to help absolve Trump from the charge that he seemed indifferent (at best) to the escalation of anti-Semitic violence during his presidential campaign and following his inauguration. This certainly doesn’t provide support for the notion that Trump intended to tell Netanyahu at their joint press conference that if he won’t act to reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinians, the alternative is not embedding the status quo but granting Palestinians equal citizenship in the de facto single state Netanyahu has so successfully engineered.
While Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt’s comportment in Israel has caused many Israeli leaders to fear that their assumptions about Trump’s abandonment of the two-state solution may be groundless, Israelis still believe that even if Netanyahu is not granted carte blanche, he will continue to bamboozle Americans into believing that he remains committed to a two-state solution. Obama and his predecessors didn’t hold back from expressing their concern about the unavoidable consequences of Israel’s settlement project for the future of Israel’s democracy and Jewish identity, but such statements were always made in the context of assurances of the unbreakability of the ties that bind America to Israel. Those assurances were the result of an American diplomacy based on the pretence that US leaders believe Netanyahu’s lie that he seeks a two-state solution, a pretence successive US administrations felt obliged to share because of their fear of Aipac, Israel’s lobby in the US. As noted by the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, the fig leaf provided by a peace process that held out the false promise of a two-state agreement, even as Israel’s settlements were clearly destroying it, is what has allowed successive Israeli governments ‘to do their worst’.
One of the ironies of Trump’s election victory as far as the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned is that he is an American president who doesn’t have to heed Aipac’s wishes. Trump owes little to American Jews for his electoral victory. Indeed, American Jews continue to play a prominent role in the anti-Trump resistance that is making itself felt across the country. To Netanyahu’s shame, he has risen to the defence of an American president whose senior strategist is a man who promotes a white supremacist ideology that echoes the idea of an Aryan master race: the ideology that produced the Holocaust, which Netanyahu so self-servingly invokes.
If effective pressure on Israel to end the occupation and accept a two-state solution won’t come from the United States, it can only come from the Palestinians themselves, when they finally act on the hard truth that the Palestinian Authority, for all the good it may have done, has been transformed by Palestine’s occupiers and by the failures of its own leadership from an institution meant to bring statehood into an instrument of permanent subjugation. It will only be when Palestinians close down the Palestinian Authority and turn it into a vehicle of non-violent struggle for rights that the two-state option will re-emerge. If it doesn’t re-emerge, in time Greater Israel’s de facto apartheid will evolve into a binational state, because no apartheid can be hidden under the cover of a ‘temporary occupation’ that has already lasted half a century. An anti-apartheid struggle will undoubtedly be long and painful, as it was in South Africa, but no longer and no more painful than would be the case were Netanyahu’s status quo to prevail. The lesson of Israel’s ‘transfer’ of Palestinians out of Area C is that an unchallenged de facto apartheid can only end with Palestinians in the West Bank finding themselves alongside the many millions of fellow Palestinian refugees outside, not inside, Palestine’s (i.e. Greater Israel’s) borders.
Perhaps the greatest of the many ironies that mark this conflict is that not only Palestinian statehood but the survival of Israel may come to depend on whether the Palestinian people renew the struggle for their own political self-determination.
This commentary appears in the current issue of the London Review of Books and online at: