President Donald Trump’s plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace has few believers and, until now, even less content. That makes all the more remarkable that it is provoking much commentary. The consensus is that the U.S. is about to abandon a two-state solution embraced by the international community as part of any peace process.
The Trump approach is radical and could have far-reaching consequences, but the emerging understanding of its nature actually does not go far enough. First, the view misstates history. American and Israeli leaders did not start talking about two states until after the peace process of the 1990s had been challenged by the violence of the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000. And when they did so, their verbal acceptance of a two-state solution continued long after the basis for realizing it through the Oslo Process had dissipated. Making the formula less central to a settlement therefore represents a major diplomatic shift, but as senior Trump officials have suggested it can also be a recognition of reality.
What is significant about the Trump approach, therefore, is not its public agnosticism toward the two-state solution. More important are recent U.S. decisions that entrench the very arrangements that peace talks in the past were supposed to overcome. Far more radically, there are three highly consequential elements at play in the administration’s behavior: First, the refusal to deal with Palestinians as a national group—and a broader reluctance to deal with most Palestinians except those who are residents of areas in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, an underlying refusal of the idea that there is any Palestinian-Israeli conflict at all. And third, an effort to deny options to future generations of U.S. leaders, and likely to Israelis and Palestinians as well. These attitudes are evinced most clearly in comments made by Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.
The denial of Palestinian nationhood has been implicit but unmistakable in recent comments by leading administration figures. The Trump administration did not simply close the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) offices in Washington last September, it virtually never refers to the PLO or use “Palestine” as a proper noun. When addressing Palestinian leaders, top U.S. officials generally do so by scolding or criticizing them. If they refer to any Palestinian institution at all, it is to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers parts of the West Bank. In February, Greenblatt coupled an insistence that two PLO figures should speak to him directly with a claim that his door was “always open to the PA.”
Friedman, in turn, has pledged to “work with the Israeli government, with the Palestinians,” acknowledging (and frequently lauding) the Israeli leadership, but bypassing any leader or institutions that speak for the latter. Indeed, when not trading barbs with Palestinian leaders, senior Trump administration officials generally offer vague statements about “Palestinians,” only occasionally going slightly further to refer to them as a “people.” And who is regarded as relevant by U.S. officials? By defunding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which cares for Palestinian refugees, the Trump administration has hinted that the refugees are not. The implication is that Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza are the ones to be dealt with, but not the Palestinian diaspora or Palestine as a nation aspiring to recognized and viable statehood.
And indeed, that leads to the second radical feature of the Trump approach, namely its implicit denial that there is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all. The contempt for Palestinian leaders seems to go beyond name-calling to full-hearted blame. Friedman and Greenblatt frequently blast Palestinian leaders for having led—or misled—Palestinians into violence, terrorism, and poverty rather than an embrace of prosperity and peace. The Trump alternative, it is suggested, will offer them a better, more prosperous future.
However, current Palestinian leaders—from Hamas, of course, but also from the PLO and Fatah—stand in the way of this brighter future. In the words of top U.S. officials, Israeli policy, settlements, and the occupation are not obstacles to better Palestinian lives. Indeed, settlements are even viewed explicitly as an opportunity for cooperation based on common interests. At a forum that brought together settlers and Palestinians last February, Friedman spoke glowingly of “the opportunity to provide a better future for the Jews and Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.” At the same event, a U.S. senator supportive of Israeli settlements boasted about his legislative efforts to encourage joint projects for settlers and Palestinians, explaining, “Where neighbors are helping neighbors and partnering together, we should consider that a good thing.”
But if the problem is that Palestinians are being duped by their leaders rather than the existence of a genuine clash between two national groups, then what conflict does the Trump administration hope to resolve? Here U.S. and Israeli officials are frank: The adversaries to be defeated are Americans who do not share the Trump agenda. In a speech before the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee—posted on the U.S. Embassy to Israel’s website, despite its partisan nature—Friedman asked rhetorically:
Can we leave [a Palestinian-Israeli settlement] to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan valley? ... Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?
The Israeli leadership is certainly anxious to grasp this historic opportunity. Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, recently proclaimed on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people: “President Trump and an administration like the Trump administration—that doesn’t happen every generation. It may happen once in many, many, many generations.”
Therefore, whatever peace plan might eventually see the light of day, explicit statements to date indicate that the U.S. and Israeli leaderships seek to entrench the occupation in a way that amounts to annexation of significant parts of the West Bank, while allowing Palestinian local administration (an arrangement that Palestinians have long termed “Bantustans,” with good reason). Yet they may try to avoid doing so in a manner so flagrant that it sparks international opprobrium and countermeasures.
Opponents of these efforts, who suggest shortcomings in Trump diplomacy, allow themselves to be distracted from the changes at work. And those who focus their efforts on reviving the “peace process” will likely find themselves at best wrestling over the contours of declaratory policy, so that annexation and apartheid will not be openly proclaimed even as they are being pursued.
A franker admission—now more than a decade overdue—is that the trajectory of change today is being driven more by sociology and demography than by diplomacy. Accepting this may finally uproot the delusion that has dominated Palestinian-Israeli relations for so long. It may also, at long last, push international actors to devise alternative policies that are designed not so much to reach a “final-status agreement” to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as to ensure that later generations will have more rather than fewer tools to shape their fate in a peaceful and just manner.
Any steps that preserve liberal elements in Israeli society and mitigate the harsh security measures that hamstring Palestinian economic, political, and social life, and foster the ability of Palestinians to organize in ways other than those provided by militarized factions, will have that effect. The payoff will not be a Nobel Prize but the slow emergence or reemergence of possibilities for Israelis and Palestinians that are better than those that have been bequeathed by the generation now passing from the scene.