‘I’m looking at two-state 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.’ With these casual words at a news conference alongside Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week President Donald Trump shifted United States policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue decisively away from its anchorage in a two-state outcome of the conflict for the last 20 years. If his immediate intention was to facilitate Mr Netanyahu’s tactical dealings with his far right coalition partners in Israel, the strategic consequence is much more likely to undermine any prospects for peace.
The two-state policy became embedded in US and most other international approaches to the conflict in the 1990s when Israeli and Palestinian leaders negotiated directly under United Nations resolutions and US tutelage. Relations of sovereign equality and respect between the two peoples were thereby registered in a potential inter-state settlement whose details of borders, compensation for Palestinian refugees and future security arrangements would remain to be negotiated.
The formula was seen to protect Israel’s Jewish character while giving expression to Palestinian demands for independent statehood. It has remained a cornerstone of international policy since then, even though events on the ground and the relentlessly shifting balance of power towards Israel increasingly mocked the likelihood of a two-state outcome actually coming to pass.
Mr Netanyahu’s successive governments over the last decade have presided over an intensified policy of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, contrary to international law and aimed at establishing irreversible facts on the ground. Security walls and barriers have so divided the Palestinian territories as to make it virtually impossible to reassemble a contiguous sovereign state there. Claims on the whole of Jerusalem and demands that the Palestinians recognise the Jewish character of Israeli are impossible for them to concede.
A one-state outcome is rejected by Palestinian leaders. It could only be acceptable to its people if Israel became a secular state with equal rights for both peoples. But that would end the Zionist dream of a state for the Jewish people. The alternative, now widely recognised, is that Israel will become an apartheid state privileging Jewish citizens over Arabs and with the West Bank sub-divided in an effective colonisation of the area. Israeli proposals to extend settlement areas, which Mr Trump would like to see delayed, increasingly make this a reality.
His hopes that Jordan and the Gulf states might become involved in peace talks are undermined by these realities of power and occupation on the ground. Instead, they presage an even deadlier conflict.