Why Trump’s two-state solution is no such thing

Why Trump’s two-state solution is no such thing

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Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu hold a press conference to discuss the proposed new Middle East peace plan at the White House. (Reuters)

The primary purpose of the Trump administration’s recently released “Peace to Prosperity” plan isn’t to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace. It isn’t even, as some critics have charged, to permit Israeli annexation of the West Bank. True, annexationists got a boost from the White House’s proposal, but their ideas entered the Israeli political mainstream long ago and without American help.

What the Trump administration has set out to do, first and foremost, is redefine and corrupt the meaning of the two-state solution. That is something that will have long-lasting effects in both the US and Israel.

From the outset, officials in the Trump administration signaled that their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be different from that of their predecessors. Different from successive administrations, both Democratic and Republican, which held fast for decades to the principle of land for peace. Different from those who, since 2000, had clung tightly to the ever-distant objective of a two-state solution.

“A lot of the criticisms we get are from people who have tried to do this in the past and failed and then they criticize us for not doing it the same way that they’ve done it,” bemoaned Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser. Of the term “two-state solution,” then-special envoy Jason Greenblatt charged that “using certain phrases and labels is not helpful because they lack detail and nuance.”

Then, last month, President Donald Trump announced alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his administration would be laying out its proposal for a two-state solution. Was the president, whose team appeared so committed to doing things differently, really returning to a well-worn formula like two states? Not really.

We have recently completed a comprehensive studyon behalf of the Israel Policy Forum evaluating different approaches for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These included the two-state solution; continuation of the status quo (or conflict management); Israeli-Palestinian confederation; a single binational democratic state; a nondemocratic Jewish state; and the Trump administration’s plan. Based on our research and dozens of interviews with supporters of these models in Israel and the West Bank, it is clear that the Trump administration’s plan shares few similarities with the traditional two-state framework and has quite a lot in common with proposals for an Israeli Jewish-dominated one-state outcome.

The two-state solution has been fraught with difficulties in diplomacy and implementation, but the fundamental concept is not difficult to grasp: Two independent states, existing side by side in peace and security. But the Trump plan misses this most basic principle; its authors permit Israel to annex broad swaths of the West Bank, while claiming that “sovereignty is an amorphous concept.”

This caveat, placed at the beginning of the plan, gives the administration license to stretch the definitions of statehood and independence well past their logical limits. The Palestinian entity envisioned under the plan has no control over its external borders or immigration policy, and would be subject to a continuing, overriding Israeli security presence — code for perpetual occupation. The fractured territory of the Palestinian entity would be pockmarked with a disconnected web of Israeli settlements.

To be sure, there are small countries that share defense responsibilities, border control and other state functions with larger neighbors. But these arrangements exist by mutual agreement. The Palestinians will not agree to the Trump administration’s proposal, meaning it would have to be imposed from above.

In a way, the Trump plan offers a right-wing analog to equally fantastical proposals for Israeli-Palestinian confederation, which call upon Israel to open its borders with a prospective state of Palestine and share control of its borders with them. We hope that a viable two-state outcome provides a path forward for better relations between Israelis and Palestinians, but it is unrealistic and unfair to expect that Israelis and Palestinians would outsource something as sensitive as their national security to their historical foes.

So why would the Trump administration choose to use the two-state title? Why stick to a description that is clearly mismatched to the contents of the proposal and a label officials like Kushner and Greenblatt had long been reluctant to use?

Here, the administration was actually quite clever. Calling the plan a two-state framework was a bid by the White House to co-opt opposition to their proposal. While the Arab states ultimately condemned the American plan, their rejection came slowly, and only after several Arab foreign ministries had released statements offering nonspecific praise for the Trump administration’s initiative, if not for the actual substance of what it was proposing. The initial reaction ​from some congressional Democrats was likewise mixed.

But this isn’t just a tactical move by the Trump administration to stymie criticism of their Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. The White House’s use of the two-state label to describe its initiative has long-term consequences too. In Israel, some settler leaders initially opposed the Trump plan because it provided for a nominally independent Palestinian state. But many of these leaders have begun to come around. They know the proposal will never be accepted, but associating themselves with the two-state moniker allows the settlers and their supporters to present a veneer of moderation, reinforce a narrative of Palestinian rejectionism, and allow annexation to continue apace.

It is unrealistic and unfair to expect that Israelis and Palestinians would outsource something as sensitive as their national security to their historical foes.

Dr. Shira Efron and Evan Gottesman

The Trump plan’s use of the term “two-state solution” risks upending the narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the US too. This new proposal does away with the compromises envisioned under the Clinton parameters and the Bush administration’s road map.

Now, anything short of the Trump plan’s generous provisions can be cast as anti-Israel for the sake of political expediency. That will be particularly harmful when Israel promises to be a contentious item on an election year foreign policy agenda.

Critics of the Trump administration’s proposal should call out the White House for the substance of its proposal. But they should also raise the alarm about the plan’s cynical misuse of the two-state solution label before that term becomes so muddied by partisan infighting as to be unrecognizable.

  • Dr. Shira Efron is a policy adviser at Israel Policy Forum — a New York-based policy organization that mobilizes support for a two-state solution. Evan Gottesman is associate director of policy and communications at Israel Policy Forum. They are co-authors of the new report, “In Search of a Viable Option: Evaluating Outcomes to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
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