Longtime U.S. policy has been to support a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as envisioned by the original U.N. partition resolution in 1947 and subsequent Security Council resolutions. Most U.S. Jewish organizations back a two-state solution. The Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially seeks a two-state solution.
So it was jarring when President Donald Trump, speaking at a press conference at the start of his meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday, Feb. 15, nonchalantly waved off two-state absolutism.
“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,” Trump said.
News headlines and Trump critics screamed about the president’s betrayal of the established formula for Middle East peace, while some on both sides who dream of a single state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean celebrated the shift in U.S. policy.
Except there’s no real shift in U.S. policy, only an endorsement of a foreign policy principle even more important than the concept of a two-state agreement: the idea that any solution must be reached through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and not imposed by any outside authority.
The common wisdom, as expressed by Secretary of State John Kerry in his defense of anti-settlement U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 in December, is that a two-state solution is the only way to preserve an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic; a one-state resolution would have to sacrifice one or the other of those Zionist ideals.
But that’s an overly simplistic interpretation of a deeply complex situation. And as has been noted by wiser Middle East experts than Kerry, such as Dennis Ross, either-or propositions in the region are a certain path to failure.
Sometimes creativity is necessary to find a path forward, particularly after decades without progress. A two-state solution is the most likely successful outcome, as well as the one majorities support in polls of Israelis and Palestinians. But there are options other than the annexation of the West Bank into Israel, the creation of a binational (that is, non-Jewish) state, and the establishment of side-by-side, separate nations along a modified Green Line.
Ideas have been floated for variations on a confederation of Jewish and Arab states, for example, and for two independent states in the same territory with a shared security apparatus (anyone in Tel Aviv or Ramallah could be a citizen of either country). We’re fond of a devolution process, giving Egypt control of Gaza and Jordan control of most of the West Bank for a limited period to enable Palestinian civil and economic institutions to develop with less conflict while diplomats work toward a permanent resolution.
Other ideas could come along, but they matter only if world powers adopt an open-minded attitude that frees the Israelis and Palestinians to find their own way.
To the extent wheeler-dealer Trump was presenting a coherent policy during his press conference, he was expressing exactly that kind of open-mindedness. The United States won’t force a solution on the two sides, and it won’t oppose any agreement they reach just because it doesn’t fit predetermined parameters.