RAMALLAH, WEST BANK – The meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in mid-February — the first between the two leaders since Trump took office — was supposed to focus on their shared desire to reverse the Iran nuclear deal. But the Israeli Knesset’s retroactive legalization of settlements and outposts constructed in the occupied West Bank will probably require a reshuffling of priorities. Trump and Netanyahu are going to have to talk Palestine.
Trump has been vocally pro-Israel. In December, he blasted then-President Barack Obama’s decision to abstain from a vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlement construction, instead of vetoing the measure.
But Trump’s administration hoped to delay staking out a clear stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict — and, in particular, Israel’s expanding settlements in the occupied territories — until after the president’s first meeting with Netanyahu. Israel made that impossible when, just days after Trump’s inauguration, it announced its plans to build new settlements, forcing the new president to concede that Israel’s plans “don’t help” the peace process.
That mild statement, however, did not trouble the Israeli legislature, which soon took matters a step further, by legalizing the government’s expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land to build thousands of homes for Israelis in the West Bank. Though Israel’s Supreme Court may overturn the decision, the move is widely viewed as a deathblow to the two-state solution.
The 200-plus exclusively Jewish settlements built in Palestinian territories have long posed an insuperable obstacle to the two sides’ peaceful coexistence as two independent states. But, over the years, Israel has worked hard to rationalize away that reality, particularly to the United States.
The settlement blocks located close to the “Green Line” (the pre-1967 border) didn’t preclude a sovereign contiguous Palestinian state, Israel argued, because land swaps would be possible. And, because the Israeli government had not declared these particular “outposts” legal, it could still claim, however disingenuously, that it supported an eventual deal.
But the story wasn’t all that convincing. After all, the Israeli government not only permitted the supposedly unapproved outposts to exist, but also supplied them with water, electricity, the internet and military protection.
This wasn’t lost on all U.S. leaders. In April 2014, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that direct talks between Israel and Palestine went “poof” when Israel announced 700 new housing units for Israelis in the West Bank. By last December, Obama was allowing the U.N. Security Council to vote on that Trump-derided resolution declaring Israel’s settlement construction a “major obstacle” to a two-state solution.
It is not difficult to imagine what Palestinian negotiators must have felt as they drove by the massive Israeli settlements on territory that they were working to include in an independent state. Their hope surely dwindled further when they saw bulldozers arrive to prepare the ground for new settlements — not an uncommon occurrence. The number of Israelis living in exclusively Jewish settlements in the West Bank has tripled since the 1993 signing of the memorandum of understanding between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.
In any case, Israel now seems to have dropped the charade. In London in early February, Netanyahu refused three times to answer questions from the press about his support for the two-state solution. He recently said that his ultimate aim is for Palestinians to have a Palestinian “state minus” that is limited in size and sovereignty.
It is not enough for Netanyahu that Palestinians have already accepted the notion that a Palestinian state (in the West Bank and Gaza) will account for just 22 percent of historic Palestine. He wants to make it even smaller, and to avoid granting fundamental sovereign rights, such as control over land, air, water and border crossings. And he is betting on Trump to open the way for him to achieve this goal.
Of course, in his pitch to Trump, Netanyahu will still claim, with all the tact of a used car salesman, that he is interested in peace, knowing full well that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to whom the president has assigned the task of brokering an agreement, doesn’t stand a chance of success. But Netanyahu’s real objective will be to get Trump on board with the settlement enterprise.
The Trump administration should be preparing to confront Netanyahu with tough questions. What is Israel’s vision for the future of the occupied territories and the status of the millions of Palestinians living there? How does Israel plan to escape the deadlock that its commitment to defending and expanding the settlements has created? How will Israel address intensifying global opposition to the de facto apartheid regime implied by denying Palestinians throughout Israel and Palestine the same political rights as Israeli Jews?
Whether Trump adopts such an approach remains to be seen, though it seems unlikely. He may even buy the “alternative facts” that Netanyahu is selling. But Palestinians certainly won’t. While they are undoubtedly unhappy with the Knesset’s latest move, they also feel vindicated, having pointed out for years that Israeli negotiators, uninterested in a two-state solution, have been bargaining in bad faith.
Now that the Palestinians have more proof, they are likely to change their own political tack, focusing their attention on the apartheid-like conditions that now prevail. The two-state solution is dead, and Israel’s acknowledgement of this will reinvigorate the struggle for Palestinian political rights in a single state.
Daoud Kuttab, a former Princeton University professor, is a leading activist for media freedom in the Middle East. © Project Syndicate, 2017
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