It’s not the pandemic but Donald Trump that could kill off the two-state solution


A Palestinian boy sits on a chair as Israeli bulldozers demolish a school site in the village of Yatta, south of Hebron in 2018

It’s not the pandemic but Donald Trump that could kill off the two-state solution, once and for all. Practically unnoticed by Washington’s worthies and elsewhere in the world, Israeli politicians recently offered bipartisan approval to America’s authority in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is both bad and good. In some ways, it imperils the two-state solution. In a quite different way, it keeps the two-state solution on life support.

Here’s what happened.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief political rival Benny Gantz agreed on April 20 to form a government together. The idea of the unity administration was to tackle the pandemic. However, from July 1, Mr Netanyahu will also be allowed to seek a vote on Israel’s annexation of more than 30 per cent of the West Bank. That’s the part of the Palestinian Territories where the majority of Palestinians lives. The condition attached to the vote is that Mr Netanyahu must act in “full agreement with the United States”. As some sharp-eyed American commentators have noted, it means that “Trump will have the power to decide whether his Israeli ally can proceed with a vote he would very likely win and that would forever alter Israel’s character”.

We can say the following about what Mr Trump may want to decide (although whether he will be able to do so is another matter). Mr Trump will want to go along with Mr Netanyahu’s vision for Israel. Mr Netanyahu, remember, has promised that he will annex all 128 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, along with the Jordan Valley along the border with Jordan. Mr Trump’s so-called “peace plan”, that “deal of the century” released in January, was also about weakening the Palestinians and their aspirations to a state to the point that a two-state solution becomes unviable.

Once upon a time, the idea of two states – Israel and Palestine, living side by side, in amity and cooperative harmony – was considered the only realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Mr Trump’s election changed all that. He put a thumb on the scale, giving Jerusalem to Israel, as well as several other generous concessions. Thereby, he decisively tipped the balance of power in favour of the Israelis.

The result of Mr Trump’s apartheid approach towards the Palestinians may become apparent a few months from now. Were Mr Netanyahu able to annex the settlements, there would be no Palestine any longer, just an engorged Israel. The newly enlarged country would then have the option to either become a binational Jewish and Arab state or stay a Jewish one that runs on the principle of apartheid towards millions of Palestinians.

Will this happen? It’s not clear that it will, for all that Mr Trump, desperate to win re- election, wants to galvanize evangelical Christians and the small number of American Jewish voters who support a “greater Israel”.

But, Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who basically wrote the so-called peace plan, has previously prevented Mr Netanyahu from annexing the settlements until the US and Israel agreed the seized territories on a map. This may be on account of Mr Kushner’s hubris – he probably wants his plan to go down in history as the one that ended the long-running conflict. Unilateral Israeli annexation would mean the peace plan is finished.

And then there is the view of Mr Trump’s Arab allies — certainly Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia. Both of these have some purchase on Mr Trump’s views. Jordan too would have an opinion worth hearing but the Trump administration often pays less heed than it might to King Abdullah. In any case, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and President El Sisi would probably say that there is no chance of an alliance between Israel and the Arab states if settlements are unilaterally annexed.

Accordingly, it’s possible that Mr Trump will bow to conventional wisdom and ask Mr Netanyahu to limit annexation, possibly only to settlements near the Israeli border.

That would save the two-state solution (only just). More to the point, it would save the character of the Israeli state.