Courtesy of President Donald Trump, the “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict is now officially on the table, even though it presents a mortal danger to Israel.
At a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump blundered into the thankless thicket of Mideast peacemaking with characteristic bravado. He declared the United States would encourage “a great peace deal,” but would no longer stick to the two-state formula, meaning the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state (formulations),” the president said. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.” He appeared oblivious to the ticking time bomb he had casually tossed on the negotiating table.
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Whatever the dangers the two-state formula poses for Israel – and at a time of Mideast chaos they are legion – the one-state concept is the most dangerous of all.
There is a reason that previous U.S. administrations from both parties (and previous Israeli governments) have clung to the two-state formula, even as its prospects kept declining.
That reason: the demographic threat.
Ever since Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza as a consequence of the 1967 Six Day War, these territories posed a long-term demographic challenge to the Jewish – and democratic – character of the state.
As of 2012, Israeli authorities put the Arab population of the West Bank at roughly 2.7 million. Add to that the 1.7 million or more Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and at least 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the total nearly equals the roughly 6.8 million Jews and other non-Arabs inside Israel.
Even if Gaza is subtracted (a problematic assumption) the higher Arab birthrate would guarantee that Palestinians would eventually outnumber Jews if there were only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Yet Trump tossed out this formulation – a huge shift in U.S. policy – as casually as if he were tapping out a 2 a.m. tweet.
True, Nikki Haley, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, walked this formulation back, saying that the Trump administration still supports a two-state solution. But presidential words on such key topics are bound to have consequences.
Trump’s new phraseology may well mark the effective death knell for the two-state solution. Even though the concept was already on life support, there was good reason to keep it alive.
True, no reasonable person would expect Israel to welcome a weak Palestinian state on its border with the Mideast in such turmoil, especially with wobbly Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and hostile Hamas in Gaza.
Moreover, Israel’s building of Jewish settlements, which crisscross the West Bank, has diced that territory up to such an extent that it almost rules out a viable Palestinian state. Moreover, the Israeli government has taken Trump’s victory and appointment of a pro-settlement U.S. ambassador as a green light for massive settlement expansion.
Yet keeping the two-state concept on life support was still a valuable strategy for two key reasons. First, as the Trump team will discover, there is no better option. Second, once this concept formally dies, Israel will be headed, inexorably, toward the perils of one binational state.
When it comes to other options, Netanyahu suggested the possibility of “a regional approach” toward peace with the Palestinians involving Sunni Arab states that share Israel’s hostility toward Iran. However, that hope is not new: The Saudis godfathered an Arab peace initiative in 2002 that offered recognition of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, including from East Jerusalem. Those terms, which Israel rejected, aren’t likely to change.
As for hopes that Jordan will agree to “federate” with the most-populated patches of the West Bank and police them, Amman has no interest in taking on such a burden. Egypt feels the same about taking control of the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu clearly hopes to maintain the status quo, under which settlements expand and Palestinian security police continue to help Israel control the West Bank. But the status quo is crumbling. Right-wing political parties in his coalition are pressing the prime minister to formally annex large chunks of the West Bank or the entire territory.
Trump may have been doing Bibi a favor by tossing out the one-state solution term to pacify those hard-liners. But now that the term is out in the open, it won’t disappear.
The current Palestinian leadership, which recognized the Israeli state in 1993, has opposed the idea of a one-state solution out of belief that Israel would reject it. But if the two-state solution appears dead, that could change – especially since Palestinians see Trump and his negotiator-designate, son-in-law Jared Kushner, as entirely on Israel’s side.
As Israel pushes for more settlements, younger Palestinians are talking more and more of pressing for one binational state in which they have equal voting rights with Israeli Jews. That opens a Pandora’s box of questions about what rights Palestinians would have within one state.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who supports the full annexation of the West Bank, has raised this question head-on, saying that annexation of Palestinian land without granting voting rights would lead to an “apartheid state.”
“If we extend sovereignty (to the West Bank), the law must apply equally to all,” he said last week. “Applying sovereignty to an area gives citizenship to all those living there.”
Yet few Israelis are likely to agree with Rivlin’s formulation. One-man, one-vote would eventually lead to Palestinian control, and, in the communally minded Middle East, to civil war, not co-existence. However, one state without such rights would require a level of repression – as Rivlin said bluntly – that would leave Israel looking like South Africa.
Having raised this prospect, the Trump team better bone up on the strategic implications of “one-state, two-states.” This is not a matter for careless phraseology or tweets.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.