On most issues, it’s hard to decipher a Trump Doctrine. On the Middle East, it’s been easy: Do whatever Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants. Whether it’s moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, or cutting aid to the Palestinians, Trump has acted like Bibi’s faithful servant.
Despite the damage Trump has done to the region, he enjoys some domestic benefits as a consequence. Evangelicals, his main political base, are thrilled to see him unconditionally embrace Israel; the new American ambassador, unlike any of his predecessors, has defended West Bank settlements. There is now a growing consensus among the hawkish right that Trump is “the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history.”
But Trump made his most pro-Israel pronouncement to date on Wednesday, when, for the first time, he endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “You may have a different feeling, I don’t think so,” he told Netanyahu before they met at this year’s U.N. General Assembly. “I think the two-state solution works best.”
It’s been obvious for decades that the two-state solution is, in fact, the only solution. There is no other viable alternative in which Israel can remain a Jewish democracy and Palestinians can live with self-determination. The problem is that even if Trump’s statement was more than just a thoughtless off-the-cuff comment—and there’s no guarantee of that—he has already made it impossible to renew peace talks with him as a mediator. Trump may have finally said the right thing, but everything he’s already done has emptied those words of meaning.
In the last month, the Trump administration brought U.S.-Palestinian relations to a historic low. After Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded to the embassy move by refusing to meet with Trump officials, the White House withdrew funds from the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, the Palestinian Authority, East Jerusalem hospitals, and Israeli-Palestinian co-existence programs. This pressure campaign comes as the White House is planning to release its highly anticipated peace plan, which Trump said on Wednesday he hopes to unveil within the next four months.
It’s hard to imagine this approach creating the conditions for a peace deal. The administration’s underlying assumption seems to be that Trump’s proposal will offer the Palestinians something so tantalizing, they won’t be able to squander the opportunity. Trump himself has said he “took Jerusalem off the table” and that Israel will “pay a higher price” for the embassy move. He doesn’t realize that there’s nothing he can give the Palestinians at this point. There’s no reason for them to trust him. And there is no material demand, not in the Middle East at least, that can make up for being humiliated.
Humiliation is one of the strongest themes in Muslim-majority countries. When the former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed addressed the Islamic Summit Conference in 2003, he said he would not “enumerate the instances of our humiliation … We are all Muslims. We are all oppressed. We are all being humiliated.” He went on, “Our only reaction is to become more and more angry. Angry people cannot think properly.”
Past presidents have miscalculated the humiliation factor, too. When Barack Obama forced Netanyahu to freeze Israeli settlement construction for ten months, it didn’t jump-start peace talks. It actually made Abbas look weaker in the eyes of Palestinians because the moratorium was something the Americans got for him, not something he delivered.
The survival of the Jewish state depends on the eventual emergence of a Palestinian state. Otherwise, Israel will soon face the agonizing choice of either franchising all Palestinians living in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, thereby giving up its Jewish majority, or permanently depriving them of basic rights, thereby abandoning its democratic character.
It appears Trump gets these fundamental dynamics, though he sees them through the lens of Islamophobia rather than a grasp of liberal Zionist ideals. He reportedly told King Abdullah of Jordan in August that, under a one-state scenario, “the prime minister of Israel in a few years will be called Mohammed.” Yet his actions have shown no real solicitude for saving Israel from its greatest existential crisis.
For a long time, Middle East watchers have understood a fundamental adage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question isn’t, What’s the solution? It’s, How do we get there? Trump on Wednesday acknowledged the solution; he just doesn’t realize that Israelis and Palestinians can’t get there as long as they have to deal with him.