Ahmad Jamil Azem
A sentence uttered on Wednesday, Feb. 15 by U.S. President Donald Trump during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding his position towards the two-state solution has evoked a great many questions and responses.
However, it is, first of all, quite justified to question not only if Mr. Trump has any new policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but to also ask if he has any policy at all.
And secondly, it seems that Trump’s statement backfired and his team now has to revise their positions and deny that they support the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Some headlines around the globe after Trump’s statement read “Trump backs off on two-state framework for Israeli-Palestinian deal” or “Backing away from a long-held position of the U.S. and the international community in the Middle East”.
But only two days later headlines were in the opposite direction: “The appointed American ambassador to Israel backs ‘two-state solution’”. The same is reported regarding the position of the U.S. ambassador to the UN.
Trump pointed out during the press conference that he was not refusing or unhappy with the two-state solution, but, rather, he said: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like", adding: "If the Israelis and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best."
It seems pointing out that there is another solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is unsettling concerned politicians around the globe. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking in Cairo, emphasized: “There is no Plan B to the situation between Palestinians and Israelis but a two-state solution and that everything must be done to preserve that possibility.”
While Trump’s statement indicated other solutions, not only a two-state solution, can be on the table, the U.S. president did not say that he had any specific ideas. He said that he would rather leave it to the parties involved.
Such a position is the core of the conventional American policy, where American administrations, in the last three decades, have supported the formula of bilateral Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and refused any international framework, opposing almost entirely the imposition or implementation of any UN resolution or formula without the full consent of Israel.
In his last month as the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry gave speeches that contained unprecedented criticism of Israeli policies. In early December 2016, in the Saban Forum -- an annual gathering of senior Israeli and American policymakers -- he said:
“More than 50 percent of the ministers in the current government have publicly stated they are opposed to a Palestinian state and that there will be no Palestinian state.”
More important, the Obama administration decided to not veto UN resolution no. 2334 last December that condemned Israeli settlements.
Will U.S. policy change?
Despite all of that, the official U.S. position continued favoring bilateral negotiations as the only path to an agreement.
After UN resolution 2334 and the historic decision to not veto it, Kerry insisted that the only way to secure a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine was to negotiate a two-state solution to the conflict.
And, as The Jerusalem Post reported on the eve of the Paris Peace Conference of Jan. 15: “Indeed, the U.S. has long maintained a policy in opposition to efforts from third parties to impose a solution onto the two sides”.
It quoted Ben Rhodes, a senior advisor to outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama, as saying the administration would continue to oppose any international effort to impose guidelines or parameters for a two-state outcome.
In this sense, the difference between what Trump recently said and the former American policy does not, in fact, amount to a policy shift. Actually the one-state solution is not totally refused by the Palestinians.
In his comment on Trump’s remark, Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said the only alternative to the two-state formula -- one Palestinian and one Israeli -- would be a single secular and democratic state.
Erekat emphasizes a secular and democratic state, because according to the widely held belief, when an Israeli supports a one-state solution, he or she does not support giving equal rights to the Palestinians or allowing them citizenship, but they only support the annexation of the land without its people.
Possible restarting the peace process
The worrying response from the UN secretary general and other parties is based on two major reasons. The first is that the Trump administration and team have been making statements and promises with increasing volatility regarding their future policies, the most remarkable one being the promise during the presidential electoral campaign to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.
The new administration also announced that it does not see Israeli settlements as an impediment to peace.
Secondly, proposing anything other than a two-state solution would be tantamount to starting the peace process anew.
As a matter of fact, Trump’s statement about a two-state solution overshadowed his declared position on moving the embassy and on the settlements. Only days before Netanyahu’s visit, Trump, in an interview with the Israeli right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom, indicated he did not believe the growth of the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories would be “good for peace”.
This was considered by the media to be a sharp reversal from the comments made by the White House only a week ago.
The unfulfilled promises and the contradictory statements of the Trump administration reflect the fact that the discourse the president adopted during his electoral campaign did not show the actual policies that he would follow, and it is apparent that he has not developed a policy yet.
David Friedman, Trump’s controversial U.S. ambassador pick for Israel, was earlier criticized for his statements supporting settlements and encouraging the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem.
But he made a surprising, yet understandable, statement when he told a panel at his Senate confirmation hearing, last Thursday, that he would be “delighted” with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. He defended his earlier position, saying that it was a result of the “unwillingness on the part of the Palestinians to renounce terrorism and accept Israel as a Jewish state”.
In the same direction, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN said last Thursday, a day after Trump’s statement, that Washington “absolutely” supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
Friedman’s U-turn and Haley’s statement hint that a completely new American policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is unexpected; other institutions and policy makers in the U.S., accompanied by the international community, will not make such a shift easy.
Secondly, the American position has so far maintained that only bilateral negotiations can decide the final peace agreement, and this is the core of the new administration’s policy, which is what the Israeli government has been looking for, because it allows Israel to avoid the demands of the U.N. and the international community while also allowing it to keep fabricating facts on the ground, through the settlements, that make a Palestinian state impossible.
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