The Trump-Netanyahu meeting

Feb 17, 2017

The Trump-Netanyahu meeting

Update from AIJAC

Update 02/17 #04

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travelled to Washington on Wednesday for his first summit with new US President Donald Trump since his inauguration, in a visit that was generally seen as important for both US-Israeli relations during Trump’s term in office and for setting a baseline for the Trump Administration’s policy on Middle East peacemaking. Most of the media headlines about the summit have focused on the initial press conference and especially Trump’s remark, when asked about the two-state solution, “I’m looking at two states and one state, and 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…” (The media conference can viewed in full here, while a transcript is here.)

Meanwhile, in remarks following the summit that got recieved less publicity that the one’s at the press conference, Netanyahu declared his views have not changed since his 2009 Bar Ilan speech supporting a two-state resolution and stated, “I said it before, and I will repeat it here again: I don’t want to annex close to 2.5 million Palestinians to Israel. I do not want them to be our subjects.” Meanwhile, a number of senior Trump Administration officials have also insisted the US still supports a two-state resolution – see here and here.

AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro yesterday published a good analysis of what was actually said at the media conference about a two-state resolution, but this Update looks in more depth at both that issue and the broader themes of the Trump-Netanyahu Summit.

We lead with Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon, who notes three takeaways from the pre-Summit media conference. These are the very different atmospherics compared to the Obama years, especially with respect to settlements, the step back from insisting the two-state solution is the only solution possible, and the new emphasis on a wider diplomatic process incorporating the Sunni Arab states. Keinon says all three represent differences from the Obama years, but that the overall effect is that there will be a significant reset of the diplomatic peace process with the Palestinians. For his full analysis, CLICK HERE. Another good general analysis of the Summit’s themes comes from Ron Kampeas of the JTA.

Next up is columnist Jonathan Tobin, who covers the controversy over Netanyahu and Trump’s alleged “step back” from the two-state principle. He says it’s clear Trump, though he spoke somewhat clumsily, was not actually withdrawing support for the two-state option but was instead emphasising another important diplomatic principle – that the US cannot impose peace on terms that aren’t accepted by the parties. While Tobin is critical of Trump’s mention of the non-viable “one state solution”, he says Trump was signalling to the Palestinians he would not reward intransigence while also calling for Israeli restraint on settlements. For all the details of Tobin’s argument, CLICK HERE

Finally, Ben Cohen, another American columnist and analyst, discusses in more detail the apparent new regional focus for the peace process being suggested by both Trump and Netanyahu. He says this new approach can be seen as reversing an idea that has been prevalent since the mid-60s – “Palestine First”. He makes a strong case that moving away from this paradigm could well be a positive step, both because the existing strategy has not worked, and because changes in the region over the last 20 years have to be taken into account in any approach to peacemaking. For this insightful piece in full, CLICK HERE. A news analysis offering differing views on the feasibility of such a regional approach and what it might look like is here. Meanwhile, Koby Huberman, co-founder of The Israeli Peace Initiative, offers his blueprint for making a regional peacemaking strategy work, here.

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Article 1

From Obama to Trump, a change in tone and substance


Jerusalem Post, 02/16/2017

Trump’s refraining from clearly saying that two states is the only way, while endorsing a wider regional approach, is a significant reset of the entire diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

Trump, Netanyahu and Obama. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Eight years ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met then-president Barack Obama in the Oval Office, this is what the new president had to say about the settlements: “Now Israel is going to have to take some difficult steps as well, and I shared with the prime minister the fact that, under the road map and under Annapolis, that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it’s an important one and it has to be addressed.”

And here is how new President Donald Trump addressed the very same issue before his first meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office: “As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit, we’ll work something out. I would like to see a deal being made, I think a deal will be made.”

The message wasn’t that significantly different, but there was a great difference in how it was delivered.

And that is one of the three major takeaways from the Trump-Netanyahu press conference on Wednesday in the White House: There will be differences between the two men because they are leaders of different countries, whose interests do not always intersect, but the differences will be dealt with very differently – as among friends, not rivals.

Obama’s tone, his demeanor at his first meeting, was almost that of a teacher telling a pupil what he has to do. Trump’s tone was friendlier, lighter.

“Bibi and I have known each other a long time,” Trump said. “A smart man, a great negotiator, and I think we are going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand.”

When Netanyahu responded with a curt “All right,” Trump joked that “doesn’t sound too optimistic,” and Netanyahu shot back in reference to a book Trump once wrote, “That’s the art of the deal.”

That jocular tone was significantly different from the heavy, tense tone of most of the Obama-Netanyahu meetings, even their first. Tone cannot paper over differences, but a good tone can make those differences easier to deal with.

The second major takeaway from the press conference was one of substance: Trump’s refusal to unequivocally endorse the two-state solution, US policy since president George W. Bush announced support for a Palestinian state in 2002.

“So I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said, as Netanyahu laughed.

“I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while that the two states looked like the easier of the two, but honestly, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

That is a significant shift from what has become axiomatic, that the only solution is a two-state solution. Trump is essentially saying that he is open to entertaining ideas and approaches to the diplomatic process other than the ones that have been tried – and have failed – since the Oslo process began in 1993.

The third major takeaway is this administration’s endorsement of looking at a wider regional diplomatic process, as Netanyahu has been advocating for a number of years.

According to this idea, the sands in the Middle East have shifted fundamentally, and it will now be easier for Israel to reach understandings with the pragmatic Sunni states in the region – Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. Once those understandings are reached, those countries will then nudge the Palestinians to be more flexible, which will make an Israeli-Palestinian deal more likely.

Former US secretary of state John Kerry dismissed this out of hand as unrealistic, saying the Arabs would never go for it. Not Trump; he wants to give the ideal a whirl.

“It is actually a much bigger deal. A much more important deal, in a sense; it would take in many, many countries, and cover a very large territory,” he said. “I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people who in the past would never, ever have thought about doing this.”

Much has been written in the last few days about how this first Trump-Netanyahu meeting – and the new, friendlier tone between the two leaders – will reset Israel-US relations after the rocky Obama years.

But more than a reset of Israel-US ties, Trump’s refraining from clearly saying that two states is the only way, while endorsing a wider regional approach, is a significant reset of the entire diplomatic process with the Palestinians.


Article 2

The Two State Solution: Does Trump’s Indifference Matter?


The benefits and drawbacks of leaving the details to the Israelis and the Palestinians

By Jonathan S. Tobin

National Review, February 16, 2017


Article 3

Trump-Netanyahu meeting shatters ‘Palestine First’ regional peacemaking strategy

By Ben Cohen

JNS.org, Feb. 16, 2017

The morning after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first official meeting with President Donald Trump, multiple headlines proclaimed Feb. 16 that the two-state solution—whereby an independent, sovereign Palestinian state would be created alongside the state of Israel within agreed and final borders—was, if not quite dead, fast approaching death’s door. 

I want to suggest that those who interpret the outcome of the Trump-Bibi meeting in that manner should dig a little deeper. There is something of a revolution in thinking and approach going on, and what’s being overturned is what you might call the “Palestine First” strategy of regional peacemaking. But that doesn’t have to mean that a solution involving Palestinian sovereignty has been extinguished.

The idea of “Palestine First” was rooted in the mid 1960s, just before the Six-Day War, when Yasser Arafat and his comrades in the Fatah movement took over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—until that point, the PLO had been an instrument of the Arab League. By asserting Palestinian independence from Arab collective decision-making, Arafat set the stage for a violent struggle against Israel in the name of Palestinian “return” and full sovereignty from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

The “Palestine First” strategy, which dates back to when Yasser Arafat gained control of the PLO in the mid-60s, is now rightly being re-thought, according to Cohen.

It took thousands of deaths and several bitter wars for Arafat to realize that his armed struggle was doomed to failure. In 1990, the “Palestine First” strategy took a heavy blow when Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq invaded Kuwait—an intra-Arab dispute suddenly toppled the Palestinian issue in the hierarchy of Arab priorities. Following the First Gulf War, Israel’s representatives met face to face with the Arab states and the PLO in Madrid, launching a lengthy, inconclusive peace process.

In parallel, however, the “Palestine First” strategy was resurrected when the Norwegian government opened a secret channel between the Israelis and the PLO, resulting in the 1994 Gaza–Jericho Agreement—a follow-up treaty to the 1993 Oslo Accords—which created the Palestinian Authority (PA) and was designed to set the Palestinians on the road to full statehood. More than 20 years and one brutal civil war later, the Palestinians are still ruled by a divided leadership and not a unified state.

That period includes, of course, the eight years in which President Barack Obama was in office. In marked contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama elevated the Palestinian issue to the center of Middle East politics, further antagonizing Israel by rehabilitating Iran, which explicitly seeks the elimination of the Jewish state, as an international actor through the 2015 nuclear deal. But neither Obama nor Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry could deliver on Palestinian statehood, and the Palestinian leadership embarked on an international campaign to seek unilateral recognition of their independence in various United Nations and international agencies.

That embittered and failed strategy, which saw Palestinian representatives verbally assaulting the historical and religious connections of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the land of Israel, is the principal memory of the Obama years when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dimension of the region’s multiple conflicts. It didn’t deliver for anybody, and served only to deepen Israeli fears of Palestinian eliminationism, as evidenced on a minute-by-minute basis in Palestinian school textbooks, on Palestinian TV and across the internet.

This is the environment that Trump walked into when he became president. Were Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) or Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), or Hillary Clinton, in the White House, I’d wager that they would all conclude—as Trump has, in the language that makes the most sense to him—that the current version of the “Palestine First” playbook should be tossed aside. “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one,” Trump said Feb. 15.

“Palestine First” never meant that the Palestinians should rank at the top of the Middle East’s myriad national and religious struggles. It meant acknowledging that the absence of full Palestinian sovereignty, and the unfulfilled demand for the “return” of all the Arab refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants, lay at the heart of the region’s ills. It is that assumption that was so dramatically exploded by the meeting between Trump and Netanyahu.

The Middle East has gone through several extraordinary transformations in the last 20 years, whose cumulative effect has been to question whether the current state system in the region can even survive. Nobody can seriously make the argument that creating a Palestinian state in this context would be a boon for peace, neither with Israel nor more broadly. Nobody—save, perhaps, for a racist—could argue that the Palestinian birthrate poses a greater threat to Israel’s existence than does Iran and its Hezbollah ally in Syria and Lebanon. Nobody can make the moral or strategic case that resolving the question of Palestinian independence is of greater import than, say, that of Kurdish independence, or the profound lack of religious freedom, or the crying need to generate economic and educational opportunities for the youth of the Arab world. 

The regional approach to peacemaking outlined by Trump and Netanyahu, grounded in a partnership between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, is foremost a recognition that there are grave problems that run across the borders created in the aftermath of World War I. If Israel is to achieve peace with the Palestinians, and if the Palestinians are to finally turn their Authority into something resembling a functional, accountable state, then those Arab states that are yet to make their own peace with Israel have to lead the way. Doing so will finally unravel the illusion that, just by existing, Israel is the source of the region’s crisis. Should that moment arrive, I hope that everyone—Arabs and Jews alike—will find it liberating.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).




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