There has been much confusion over what was and what wasn’t said at the press conference between US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Washington DC yesterday.
Some reports have suggested that President Trump and Netanyahu were considering abandoning the idea of two states for two peoples in favour of some kind of one-state future.
Admittedly, Trump’s words could have been better chosen, and Netanyahu made it clear he sees Palestinian independence as something that will require some limitations for security reasons. Nonetheless, upon closer examination of the press conference and comments made afterwards, it seems likely that they are both, quite deliberately and intentionally, leaving the door open for a peace based on a two-state outcome – while pressuring the Palestinians to come to the table.
Meanwhile, Trump further hinted that this overture to the Palestinians would not be open-ended.
A poor choice of words
Trump’s comment during the press conference referencing one-state needs to be seen in its proper context – including the question that prompted it (emphasis added).
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mr. President, in your vision for the new Middle East peace, are you ready to give up the notion of two-state solution that was adopted by previous administration? And will you be willing to hear different ideas from the Prime Minister, as some of his partners are asking him to do, for example, annexation of parts of the West Bank and unrestricted settlement constructions? And one more question: Are you going to fulfill your promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? And if so, when?
And, Mr. Prime Minister, did you come here tonight to tell the President that you’re backing off the two-state solution?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. (Laughter.) I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.
I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.
At the same time, Netanyahu pointedly refused to directly respond to the question whether he supported two-state paradigm because, in his view, it can be interpreted too broadly.
I read yesterday that an American official said that if you ask five people what two states would look like, you’d get eight different answers. Mr. President, if you ask five Israelis, you’d get 12 different answers. (Laughter.)
But rather than deal with labels, I want to deal with substance. It’s something I’ve hoped to do for years in a world that’s absolutely fixated on labels and not on substance.
Netanyahu went on to identify two red lines for Israel, in his view.
First, the Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state. They have to stop calling for Israel’s destruction. They have to stop educating their people for Israel’s destruction.
Second, in any peace agreement, Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River. Because if we don’t, we know what will happen — because otherwise we’ll get another radical Islamic terrorist state in the Palestinian areas exploding the peace, exploding the Middle East.
Ahead of the meeting with Trump, in discussions with his cabinet, Netanyahu reportedly used the term “state-minus” to describe what he could offer the Palestinians, because a Palestinian state, in his view, would be subject to limitations due to the security situation Israel faces.
As the Times of Israel reported:
“What I’m willing to give the Palestinians,” the prime minister said in the weekly meeting, according to Hebrew reports, “is not exactly a state with full authority, rather a state minus.”
Netanyahu clarified his remarks further in a second press conference
Many reports of the Trump-Netanyahu press conference neglected to update with the remarks Netanyahu gave to reporters in a follow-up briefing later on Wednesday.
The Times of Israel reported Netanyahu saying:
“I said it before, and I will repeat it here again: I don’t want to annex close to 2.5 millions Palestinians to Israel. I do not want them to be our subjects”
The Times of Israel report added
Asked if the two-state solution is dead, Netanyahu said that depended on how one defined the term. “Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state and continues to talk about the ‘right of return’ and does not agree to the IDF having full security control [over the West Bank]. That is his policy, and it is unacceptable to us.”
Lamenting the use of “labels,” such as two-state solution or one-state solution, Netanyahu insisted that his positions regarding Palestinian statehood have not changed at all. “I have been very consistent about that,” he said.
One further point to make – the fact that President Trump signalled to Netanyahu to slow construction in the settlements – at least temporarily – is a request that wouldn’t make any sense if Trump were truly abandoning the two-state paradigm, since, by definition, in a one-state scenario, it wouldn’t matter at all where Jews or Palestinians choose to live.
As Trump said to Netanyahu:
As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out.
Notice Trump didn’t tell Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements” indefinitely, but for “a little bit”. It would appear that this is a nod to the Palestinians that, while he’s willing to ask Israel to slow construction in the settlements if it will help give the Palestinians the political room to return to negotiations, if they don’t respond, he’s not going to reward Palestinian intransigence with continued pressure on Israel on this issue.
Netanyahu, for his part, said that – with the exception of Jerusalem – Israel will not proceed with any new construction over the Green Line (beyond what has already been approved in January) without “agreement” with the White House.
The Times of Israel story continued:
“In Jerusalem, we’ll continue to build, and everything we’ve already announced will be built. But, on the rest, we need to discuss [it] and reach an agreement,” Netanyahu said, adding that while the US and Israel see “eye to eye on the rest of the issues, we must examine any request on this issue because it is in our interest.”
In light of the above, what is the most useful takeaway from the Trump-Netanyahu press conference? The Palestinian Authority has already complained on several occasions that the Trump Administration has not been reaching out to them.
But rather than continue the approach of former President Barack Obama, who made Mahmoud Abbas the first leader he called as president and whose administration bent over backwards to lure the Palestinians back to negotiations through appeasement and pandering, Trump is employing the negotiation tactic of making them come to him if they want to enjoy the benefits of a deal.
On Wednesday, top Palestinian official Saeb Erekat insisted to reporters that the Palestinians are ready to negotiate on two-states, while threatening to demand one state – a Palestinian one, to be sure – if this is not met.
Judging by the Trump-Netanyahu press conference, it appears Trump is challenging them to prove their genuine interest in two states by returning to negotiations in good faith, rejecting incitement, violence, boycotts and attempts to internationalise the conflict at the UN and elsewhere, and instead working out a peace agreement with Israel that everyone can live with.