By Derek Verbakel*
At a White House press conference on 15 February, US President Donald Trump said he was neither committed to a ‘two-state solution’ nor opposed to a ‘one-state solution’ to the Israel-Palestine conflict. This upended a position held unanimously by the so-called international community, including successive US administrations, which for decades has paid lip-service to the notion of the eventual creation of a Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel. On 23 February, Trump backpedaled slightly, saying “I like this two-state solution, but I am satisfied with whatever both parties agree with.” While the Trump administration’s ambiguity constitutes a significant rhetorical wobble, in practice it portends an acceleration of long-running US policies enabling Israel to gradually foreclose the possibility of a ‘two-state solution’.
The UN has endorsed the creation of separate and independent Israeli and Palestinian nation-states since the mid-1970s. Today, Hamas, the militant Islamist party governing the Gaza Strip, eschews negotiations, while secular-nationalist Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) representatives and the Israeli government officially support a ‘two-state solution’. However, Israel’s current right-wing government, like its predecessors, has continued to colonise land on which such an agreement is to be based by establishing state-subsidised, Jewish-only settlements, including on private Palestinian property.
Although in its last days his administration called settlements an obstacle to peace and allowed passage of a UN Security Council resolution condemning them, this process carried on under former US President Obama. Among other actions, the Obama administration vetoed an anti-settlement resolution in 2011; shielded Israel from international justice and accountability measures; and in September 2016, sent Israel the largest US military aid package to any country ever. During Obama’s presidency, Israel’s settler population rose by over 100,000 to bringing the total number to approximately 600,000 in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem).
Trump, regarded as even more sympathetic, has been welcomed by the Israeli right. He appointed David Friedman, a Zionist hardliner who has long opposed a ‘two-state solution’ and financed settlement construction, as the US’ ambassador to Israel. As peace envoy to the Middle East, Trump tapped his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is known to hold similar views. In his most recent statement on the matter, Trump expressed eagerness to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a plan that would effectively recognise Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as their future capital.
Although Trump later called for some restraint in settlement expansion outside existing blocs, since his inauguration, Israel’s emboldened Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced plans to construct over 6000 new settlement homes in the West Bank. A Supreme Court challenge may come, but on 6 February, Israeli parliamentarians passed a bill retroactively legalising thousands of settler homes built on Palestinian land in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has said the Palestinians should be left with a “state-minus.” This, it seems, would entail the continued aggrandisement of the territory, resources, and power of an ethnocratic Jewish state at the Palestinians’ expense. Equal rights would remain absent for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Those in the West Bank would continue to have limited autonomy in fragmented enclaves, subjected to systemic violence and overriding Israeli security control over all the area west of the Jordan River. Gaza, already blockaded and periodically subjected to devastating Israeli attacks, would remain in limbo under the pretext of Israeli security concerns. New would be designation of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, which would retain at least all the major West Bank settlements, encircled by a completed Separation Wall marking the ‘border’.
However, Netanyahu’s ability to establish such an arrangement at his own pace is challenged by those within his Likud party and coalition partners who demand open and immediate annexation of all or parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu is a cautious and calculating politician averse to drastic steps. However, with Obama’s departure – and while facing a corruption probe and angling for a fifth term in office – Netanyahu loses the ability to invoke the excuse of an American response. He is less able to resist pressure from even more hawkish politicians echoing well-subscribed public sentiments.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, supported by other Arab states, has reiterated insistence on a ‘two-state solution’ and a halt to settlement expansion. But clinging to this strategy has never resulted in sufficient international pressure on Israel to bargain in good faith or reverse course, and so weakens the ability of the PLO and Palestinian Authority leadership to continue legitimising its own existence. Ordinary Palestinians are increasingly frustrated by their ineffectual leaders and the occupation sustaining them, and this will likely fuel both non-violent civil disobedience and an uptick in uncoordinated armed attacks on Israelis.
Netanyahu may seek Trump’s assent to a “state-minus” scenario, presenting it misleadingly as a security imperative to prevent the West Bank from being taken over by radical Islamists. Such an agreement would help Israel counter expected censure from European countries for dismissing the two-state paradigm. Especially if a ‘state-minus’ model is openly contemplated, the Palestinian leadership and international community will be forced to confront the fact that hollow appeals by all for a ‘two-state solution’ only further the ideal’s demise.
Its preferences may become clearer, but through design or incompetence – and for better or for worse – the Trump administration could usher in a new international agenda to address the Israel-Palestine issue.
* Derek Verbakel
Researcher, IReS, IPCS
E-mail: [email protected]