An unconventional joint press conference was held by American President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week. The new American administration, the president said, would be “working toward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States will encourage a peace and, really, a great peace deal.” But President Trump, when asked if he was committed to a two-state solution, replied ambivalently: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state” formulations, he said. “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.” When further pressed on the details of any negotiations, Trump responded: “As with any successful negotiation, both sides will have to make compromises.” On the issue of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, Trump told Netanyahu: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
Trump’s words were interpreted by many as a decisive shift in American foreign policy and an abandonment of previous administrations’ commitment to a two-state solution. But many observers believe President Trump’s comments simply reflect overwhelming ignorance rather than any great new strategy. His words at last week’s press conference exposed his lack of experience when it comes to international relations, and reflected less a change in policy than the absence of one. If Trump does feel compelled to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with any sincerity, however, it is near impossible to see him pushing for anything other than two states. American interests and the basic political, moral, and demographic realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all point towards a two-state deal. Conversely, the alternative – one-state – is supported by only a third of Palestinians and a quarter of Israelis. Donald Trump will have to swiftly face up to diplomatic reality: the two-state solution is the only game in town.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s words were clearer. When asked by an Israeli reporter if he still supported his vision of a two-state solution as set out in his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, the prime minister claimed his position had not changed. Netanyahu repeated the same two conditions that he laid out in 2009: that a Palestinian state is demilitarised (phrased last week as “Israel’s security control”), and that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state. However, there was one noticeable difference between 2009 and 2017. In 2009, Netanyahu’s vision amounted to a “Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state”, whereas last week, Netanyahu criticised a focus on the two-state label. “If you want to deal with labels, deal with labels” he said. “I’ll deal with substance.” When later asked if the two-state solution is dead, Netanyahu said it depended on how the two states were defined, referring again to his two preconditions.
Netanyahu’s sudden aversion to the two-state label, despite little change in his position, reflects the fragility of his governing coalition. On the one side, the pro-settler Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett, rejects the two-state solution. On the other side, the Kulanu party, as well as the moderate wing of Likud, support the Bar-Ilan two-state vision. Two states for two peoples is also the policy of the Israeli Labor opposition, the international community, and the majority of the Israeli public. However, with Jewish Home emboldened by Trump, Netanyahu is at this moment under more pressure from the right: this explains his recent ambivalence towards the two-state label. But this is just Netanyahu’s method of riding out short-term political pressure at home. In the Trump era, it seems likely that Netanyahu will simply continue to follow the narrow political tightrope he has walked since 2009: committed to his Bar-Ilan vision of two-states, but with little or no material change to the status quo.