Wednesday, before his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Israel's active participation, Donald Trump may have moved
the concept of a two-state solution as a cornerstone of US policy from the just dead to the permanently buried category.
Was this a tactical maneuver to help Netanyahu protect himself from his anti-two-state right wing, or does it reflect a more enduring shift in US policy? Here are my five takeaways.
In what was tantamount to a radical shift in US policy, Trump moved from a 20-year-old approach to the Palestinian issue into unknown territory, seemingly offering Israelis and Palestinians a choice between one state or two. Whether because of imprecision or inexperience, Trump put into play a concept -- one state -- without defining what he meant.
Was it one in which Israelis and Palestinians live happily ever after as citizens in the same state, or one where Israel maintains control of much of the West Bank and its inhabitants, and Palestinians exist as second-class citizens or worse? No US President has ever endorsed a one-state solution, offered up such choice or so willfully appeared to distance himself from a concept that clearly faces long odds without knowing what comes next.
In a way, Trump converted US policy into an exercise akin to ordering from an old-school Chinese menu: Choose one from Column A and/or one from Column B.
2) Israel and the US on the same page
No doubt the strategic purpose of this first meeting was to make it unmistakably clear that the acrimony of the Obama years has passed, and a new age in the US-Israel relationship has dawned. And that means moving along three planes: improving the American President's personal relationship with Netanyahu; coordinating more closely on Iran; and, at least for now, working with Israel to establish a new paradigm for peacemaking that is less abrasive to Netanyahu's right-wing opposition and more compatible with his own ideology.
Netanyahu's nemesis, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, warned
the Prime Minister not to raise statehood, and he didn't. From there it was only a hop, skip and jump to what followed: Abandoning a two-state solution that Netanyahu always disliked and was never really committed to.
The Israeli prime minister quickly validated the President's thinking by making it clear we need "new avenues" of peacemaking, a reference to a regional approach that engages the neighboring Arab states.
3) Two-state idea is dead: What's the problem?
Let's be clear, today's abandonment of an idea that in many minds is already dead might not seem so radical and wild-eyed. But like many laws of gravity that operate in Trumpland, acting before thinking through the consequences seems to constitute a kind of prime directive. Sure, the two-state paradigm has been more fiction and illusion than functional concept these last few years. But sometimes fiction is useful, particularly when the concept is so widely supported -- at least in theory -- by so much of the Arab world, the international community and Israelis and Palestinians.
There is no tooth fairy and no angels, and yet they both serve a purpose for millions of people. This isn't entirely willful self-delusion; it's based on the notion that separation through negotiations into some kind of semi-sovereign Palestinian polity is likely the least bad solution to the conflict. And to casually abandon it without an alternative, due diligence, or consultations with any of the parties (minus the Israelis) calls into question US credibility as an effective broker.
4) So what is Plan B?
To hear the President talk Wednesday, you would think the United States is heading for the deal of the century -- a deal much bigger than you can imagine. From the little we know, the new approach is based on a very old Israeli idea: Involve the Arab states as a way to both recognize the will of the Israelis and to show support for the tough decisions Palestinians and, presumably, Israelis need to make.
What's new isn't the concept, but the emerging affinity between Israel and Sunnis Arabs as a result of common threats from Iran and jihadists. This new coincidence of interests is very real. But whether it applies to the Palestinian issue is another matter.
As early as 2002, the Arab world offered up its Arab Peace Initiative
, which in fact provided recognition to Israel. But the catch to this regional approach (and there always is one) was reciprocal and painful concessions from Israel, including a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
Are key Arab states ready to endorse recognition -- even incrementally -- without serious Israeli concessions, including some kind of settlements freeze during negotiations? And have those states become so willful, stable and risk-ready that they will accept Netanyahu's Palestinian state and compel the Palestinians to accept some downsized polity that leaves Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty? And will Netanyahu, pressed by his right wing coalition and ever risk-averse, be able to meet even minimum Arab and Palestinians demands?
5) Back to where we started?
The two-state solution may well be impossible to implement. It requires leadership on both sides and effective US mediation. All three are currently missing. And I'm not pushing for it now. Negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu would almost certainly fail. But that does not mean that the Plan B or some variation can succeed.
Give Trump, Jared Kushner and Netanyahu a chance to test the one-state solution. We certainly couldn't produce a deal; perhaps they will.
However, in a conflict that has no status quo, where sovereignty, religious identity and a struggle to maintain holy sites remain unrequited, don't be surprised if you can't do a deal without addressing these challenges.