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What shrugging off a two-state solution could mean for Mideast peace prospects

February 15, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, President Trump served notice that he's not wedded to long-standing U.S. support for a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hari Sreenivasan gets analysis from Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and Brookings Institute's Tamara Wittes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But now to the president’s meeting with Israel’s prime minister at the White House today, and what it means for the U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.

HARI SREENIVASAN: With that, President Trump served notice that he is not wedded to longstanding U.S. support for a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But, honestly, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president urged a wider peace pact as well, involving other Middle Eastern countries.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And it is something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before. And it’s actually a much bigger deal, a much more important deal, in a sense.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Trump also left open the possibility of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite Palestinian demands that East Jerusalem be their capital.

Netanyahu called for the U.S. and Israel to seize this moment, and he laid out his conditions for peace.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli Prime Minister: First, the Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state. They have to stop calling for Israel’s destruction. Second, in any peace agreement, Israel must retain the overriding security control of the entire area west of the Jordan River.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Palestinians vehemently oppose that second element. They also flatly reject Israel’s ramped-up construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That point elicited this exchange today.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out. But I would like to see a deal be made. I think a deal will be made.

So let’s see what we do.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Doesn’t sound too optimistic, but he’s a good negotiator.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Netanyahu later added:

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I believe that the issue of the settlements is not the core of the conflict, nor does it really drive the conflict. I think it’s an issue that has to be resolved in the context of peace negotiations, and we also are going to speak about it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As the two leaders talked at the White House, Palestinian officials say President Mahmoud Abbas met secretly Tuesday night with CIA Chief Mike Pompeo in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Joining me to delve further into the news out of today’s White House news conference, and where the Israeli-Palestinian issue stands at the beginning of the Trump administration, are Shibley Telhami. He’s the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. And Tamara Cofman Wittes, she’s a senior fellow in the Middle East Policy Center at the Brookings Institution, and she served as deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs in the Obama administration from November of 2009 to January 2012.

Shibley, I want to start with you.

What did both of these leaders get out of this, before they even begin to having conversations?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland: First, domestically.

Mr. Netanyahu is obviously looking back home. He is in trouble in an investigation on corruption. He is being pressured from the ultra-right. So, he wants to show, at a time when Israelis are uncertain about where the president is going to, where President Trump is going to go, he wants to show that he can make a deal with the president, that he can have a working relationship with him, that he can deliver. It helps him at home.

With Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu is very popular in the Republican Party. In my polls actually, he’s up there with Ronald Reagan as one of the most popular leaders in the world, and especially among the evangelical right.

So, just by virtue of looking like they’re cordial in the photo-op, they both score points at home. Obviously, they also score points on some issues that we knew they would score points on, for example, the stated American support for Israeli security, the fight on terrorism, the Iran issue.

Those are issues where there isn’t much difference, at least rhetorically. And those obviously are the ones that register. But, then, of course, we turn to the more central question where there will be inevitably some disagreements, the Israel and Palestinian question.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes. That’s right.

Tamara Wittes, I want to get to you with that, the one-state, two-state statement by the president today. The U.S. has always been committed to a peaceful resolution to this, but why is the president’s announcement today so important?

TAMARA COFMAN WITTES, Brookings Institution: Well, look, I think it’s always been the American position, enunciated previously by the U.S. presidents, that we can’t want peace more than the parties themselves, and that the parties have to agree to a solution of their conflict, and we will support them in doing that.

What’s changed here is that, for a long time, under President George W. Bush, and then under President Obama, the U.S. has agreed with both parties that a two-state solution, that is, independent, sovereign states for Israel and for Palestine, is the only stable, lasting solution for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Today, Donald Trump suggested that there might be some other outcome that could deliver a lasting peace. And that does throw into question the objective of any negotiations.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: If I may add on this one, just in terms of what is missing here, what is missing is, when the statement is, it’s up to the parties to negotiate, with no reference to international law or previous agreements or some framework, you’re leaving it up to the Israelis and Palestinians, a very unequal relationship.

They’re not going to be able to do this on their own, without reference to what has been agreed or some ground rule. That’s number one.

Number two, the president throws in there the one state. He only gives two alternatives, two states, one state. Well, if you have one state, it can be only one of two days ways, not a Jewish state, democratic states for Arabs and Jews, but not a Jewish state, or an apartheid state.

By the way, if Obama had put that proposal on the table just like Trump stated it, he would have been attacked from all over the place from the right by suggesting the one-state solution could be on the table.

So, this one is really interesting, because you have got some agreements both on the left and right about the impossibility of a two-state, but what they want is something completely different.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shibley Telhami, just staying with you for a second, is a one-state solution a nonstarter for the Palestinians?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: No, it’s not a nonstarter, even though, I think, for many of them, obviously, they don’t think it as realistic. When you ask them, do you think it’s going to happen, most say no.

But if they think they can — if they can have a full, equal relationship with Israel, well, of course they would, because, ultimately, that will be a majority. That’s not a nonstarter. But it’s a nonstarter if they’re not going to have equal relations.

But it is a nonstarter for the Israelis, undoubtedly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tamara Wittes, both men said that the goal might be more achievable if more regional partners got involved. What are the possible repercussions if there are more people at the table?

TAMARA COFMAN WITTES: Well, look, I think this is an idea that has actually been tossed around for a while. It’s something that President Bush and Secretary Condoleezza Rice tried to do at their Annapolis conference, bring together the region as a whole, partly to compensate for Palestinian weakness, and to put more on the table that’s attractive to Israel, in terms of regional security and stability and regional cooperation.

So, in principle, expanding the pie actually does give you more options for resolving the conflict. In practice, however, the Arab states have made clear over and over again that they are not going to get in front of the Palestinians in solving this conflict. They are going to go where the Palestinians are willing to go, and not beyond.

I still don’t see any reason to think that that has changed. And so I think this sort of outside-in approach will last only as long as the Arab governments think that the Palestinians want it to last.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shibley Telhami, is there — Prime Minister Netanyahu started saying today that basically there are lots of things that he has in common with Arab states, say, for example, their fear of a more powerful Iran.

Would all of these Arab states, in that shared fear or concern with Israel, would they put the Palestinian state on the back-burner?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: First, he’s right that there are a lot of common interests. And that shows. And, obviously, you know, the president of Egypt, the king of Jordan, the leader of the UAE, they have some cooperative relationships strategically, whether it’s on Iran or fighting terrorism.

And, also, they all have working relations with Trump, and even with Putin, as the president of Russia. So, in some ways, you have this kind of strategic picture.

But the big elephant in the room is the Israel-Palestine question. It always has been. As Tamara said, you can put — if it weren’t for that, of course, then you can have it.

Now, what Netanyahu wants to do is to show to the Israeli public that he can build settlements and not really make the concessions that are needed on the Palestinian issue, and still make peace with the Arab states. And he wants Trump to help him.

Now, one of the — that’s the way that Arabs have interpreted historically. Well, interestingly, in the news conference today, look at the body language. Netanyahu was the one to say, this is essentially my plan that I taught Trump to advocate, instead of letting it even look like a Trump plan, because his interest is ultimately to send a message at home that he’s the one who is making Trump do it, rather than to have the Arabs have a fig leaf to come on board.

I think many of them might play with Trump. They don’t want to say no to him. They have their own self-interests to want to play. The Saudis remain a big question. But, ultimately, I think, when push comes to shove, the Palestinian issue may be just a fig leaf for something other than Israeli-Palestinian peace.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Shibley Telhami.



Tamara Wittes, very quickly, you want to wrap up?


Just to add, I think that what is really bringing Israel and the Arab states together right now is a common sense of threat. It’s not necessarily a common vision for the region’s future.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Tamara Wittes, Shibley Telhami, thank you both.