Trump Nudges Israel and Palestine Towards Calamity

The White House has yielded to Israel’s version of the alt-right.

Donald Trump may soon feel Benjamin Netanyahu’s pain. The Israeli Prime Minister, who is currently under three (possibly four) separate criminal investigations involving bribery by a foreign national, abuse of power, and conflicts of interest in a recent arms sale with a foreign company, visited the White House Wednesday. The Trump administration, for its part, is freshly under siege amid Tuesday night’s revelations that senior Trump campaign officials were in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials throughout the presidential campaign.

Frenzied coverage of a potentially treasonous criminal conspiracy executed by individuals now occupying the highest levels of government will almost certainly overwhelm Trump’s energy and any meaningful media attention of the visit. That is a welcome relief to Netanyahu. Haaretz, Israel’s biggest liberal newspaper, reported a fascinating private discussion between Netanyahu and his cabinet ahead of his visit:

“We have to make every effort to avoid a confrontation with him,” Netanyahu told his ministers, according to a senior official with knowledge of the meeting’s proceedings…Netanyahu said that he told Trump that he supports the two-state solution and a final status agreement, but stressed that he told the president that the Palestinians are unwilling and detailed the reasons why a peace deal cannot be reached at this time.

“They (the Palestinians) will want, they will make concessions,” was Trump’s response, Netanyahu told the ministers, the official said.

Netanyahu revealed the details of his phone call with Trump after Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked pressed him to urge the U.S. president to take the two-state solution off the table, while complimenting him on his diplomacy skills. “You have the ability, he appreciates you,” the two told Netanyahu. “You can convince him to drop the issue of the two states.”

The senior official said that Netanyahu replied that he doesn’t believe that was possible, noting the American president’s stances and temperament. “Trump believes in a deal and in running peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu stressed. “We should be careful and not do things that will cause everything to break down. We mustn’t get into a confrontation with him.”

Netanyahu did not want to restart negotiations but neither did he want to publicly say a two-state solution is moribund, nor did he want to publicly affirm a commitment to a two-state solution. In fact, he underestimated Trump’s willingness to abandon the pursuit of two states. On Tuesday night, several White House correspondents were briefed by an unnamed administration official who said the United States will not insist on two states as the only outcome for peace. The official was careful not to explicitly say the administration is open to a one-state solution. In his prepared remarks, Trump nearly repeated the official’s words verbatim. But in response to one of the questions Trump went even further, saying, “I’m looking at the two state and the one-state and I’m for the one that both parties like the best.”

Netanyahu didn’t make it out totally unscathed. Trump directly confronted Netanyahu on settlements, saying “I would like to see you hold off” on them. Netanyahu, trying to stomp that fire out grumbled, “Settlements are not core of conflict…President Trump and I will talk about it so we don’t continue bumping into each other.”

The obvious thing first: this new stance is a sorry departure from the long-standing U.S. policy principle of supporting a two-state solution. The impact is somewhat mitigated by the fact there was nothing in place in Israel or Palestine to restart negotiations anyways. As journalist Ben Ehrenreich’s excellent book The Way to the Spring demonstrates, Israel and the Palestinian elite are content with the status quo.

But the second immediate consequence could permanently dash any hope of a peaceful two-state solution. By yielding commitment to a two-state solution, Trump has submitted to Israel’s far-right Home Party, which openly opposes two states and advocates for expansive settlement construction and, ultimately, the complete annexation of the West Bank. The Home Party has enough seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to unseat Netanyahu if he strays too far from their demands. As Netanyahu prepared to leave for the U.S., the Home Party’s leader wrote on Facebook “[t]he two words—Palestinian state—are a historic disaster” and threatened that, “if [U.S. President Donald] Trump and Netanyahu even mention a Palestinian state, the earth will shake.”

In the U.S., much has been made about Trump’s supposedly strong interest in the so-called “outside-in” approach to achieving two states. But there’s no evidence in the first place that Trump strongly believes there should be two states. He seems to be merely motivated by ego. During the campaign Trump referred lustfully to it as “the deal that can’t be made.” In fact, there’s no reason to believe Trump could not be converted into a one-state solution advocate. Trump’s inner circle is already dominated by people who would be sympathetic to the Israeli right wing’s ethno-nationalism.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and trusted consigliere, has been tapped to lead the administration’s peace initiative and this has led commentators to discuss him in separate terms from Trump and his other advisors. Indeed, Kushner, who practices Orthodox Judaism and received a strongly conservative Zionist education throughout his childhood, appears to be the only top White House figure who has any strong moral convictions when it comes to Israel. His family, it so happens, has close personal ties with Netanyahu—and close financial ties with West Bank settlements.

Kushner, however, has never publicly articulated his views of the conflict and which solution he favors. He’s a diplomatic rookie and his power in the White House might already be feeble or diminishing. He’s been repeatedly portrayed in the media as a calming voice of reason that Trump trusts and respects. But as Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox keenly pointed out, there’s evidence that Kushner has already been outmaneuvered by the two Stephens, Bannon and Miller, in an extraordinary way:

[Trump signed the Muslim ban executive order] with a gold-tipped pen, at 4:42 p.m., 16 minutes before sundown [on a Friday]…Kushner, along with his wife, Ivanka Trump, is also an orthodox Jew who observes Shabbat. From sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, the couple abstains from technology and work. And early in the incipient Trump administration, that brief period has been unusually fraught…The timing of Trump’s executive order on Friday, just moments before sundown, meant that Kushner would not be in the West Wing to absorb another cataclysmic Saturday.

The best evidence of Trump’s fundamental indifference to a just conclusion of the Israel-Palestine conflict remains his nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Friedman’s confirmation hearings in the Senate are scheduled to begin Thursday. He is a bankruptcy lawyer who did some work for Trump’s Atlantic City properties. But what makes him the most disgraceful choice ever for ambassador is his ultra-reactionary chauvinism. He has repeatedly slandered President Obama as an anti-semite and, ludicrously, called the U.S. State Department an anti-semitic institution. He has vociferously adopted the Home Party’s annexation solution to the conflict. He was the one who peddled the idea of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But perhaps his worst offense came last June, while he was serving as an informal advisor to Candidate Trump. He wrote in an extreme right-wing Israeli website that liberal Jews are “worse than kapos,” the Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in the death camps. They are “just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas—it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.” Later confronted with his own words at a conference, Friedman doubled down, saying, “They’re not Jewish and they’re not pro-Israel.”

Trump’s personal limitations and his personnel choices have obviated any pursuit of a serious political—and moral—solution to the conflict. A one-state solution is not only reprehensible but practically unviable, yet the Trump administration has managed to make a quiet acquiescence to it the path of least resistance. And now it’s the one the administration, as it gets further bogged down in its own sleaze, is most likely to take.

Josh Alvarez

Josh Alvarez is a journalist in Washington, D.C.