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Trump’s Speech: Lights Out for the Two-State Solution?

Ron Skolnik
December 6, 2017

by Ron Skolnik

THE TWO-STATE SOLUTION, on life support for years now, might just have been put to death by one Donald J. Trump. The situation is critical and what a host of international actors do in the upcoming weeks could determine its continued viability.

Trump’s weapon of attempted execution was the speech on Jerusalem he gave earlier today in which he formally recognized the city as Israel’s capital. On its face, that declaration doesn’t sound like such a terrible thing. After all, as Trump and others have noted, Jerusalem in practice has functioned as Israel’s capital for nearly seventy years, and is the seat of its legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Foreign diplomats, while based in Tel Aviv, regularly attend to their diplomatic business in the city’s Western section. In this context, Trump sought to frame his declaration as no more than a “recognition of reality.”

But Trump’s failure was not so much what he included in his speech as what he so glaringly omitted. While validating Israel’s right to determine its own capital and citing the Jewish people’s historic ties to Jerusalem, he loudly refrained from acknowledging the Palestinian people’s equivalent rights and attachments. In referencing, “That city” to be “Israel’s capital,” his speech failed to distinguish between Jerusalem’s Western region, within the country’s Green Line boundaries, and the Eastern section, beyond the Green Line and unilaterally annexed by Israel following the war of 1967. In the absence of such a distinction, and with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu heartily cheering Trump on, today’s speech can only be seen as a show of support for Israel’s claims to the entire city. Trump, in other words, presented the Israel-Palestine conflict as a zero-sum game and came down on the side of one party and one party alone.

While Trump’s speechwriters shoehorned in some disclaimers -- “We are not taking a position of any final-status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem” -- folks in the region accurately heard the dog whistle that the White House was sounding. Israel’s U.S. Ambassador Ron Dermer rushed to tweet out a thank you note to Trump, accompanied by a picture of the American and Israeli flags projected onto the walls of the Old City, the most sensitive, disputed part of Jerusalem, and the geographical heart of the conflict. Translation: You didn’t have to say it, Mr. President, but we Israelis know -- this White House recognizes Israel’s sovereignty in both the Eastern and Western parts of the city.

The Palestinians got the message, too. President Abbas announced that the U.S. had disqualified itself from the mediator role it has played since the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, and Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator offered this chilling response:

President Trump has delivered a message to the Palestinian people: The two-state solution is over. Now is the time to transform the struggle to one of one state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.”

IF THIS WERE just a plot orchestrated by Trump and Netanyahu, we might breathe a bit easier. Both men, after all, cater to the interests of a hard-right base, are electorally vulnerable, and might even be forced out by the corruption and collusion scandals swirling around them. But sadly, the problem at hand is bigger: Today’s announcement has drawn support both from key Democrats and from Israel’s so-called Opposition. Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, for example, told the Weekly Standard that he had encouraged Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” [i.e. West and East -- RS] capital. And Avi Gabbay, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party, welcomed the speech, too, insisting, according to the Times of Israel, that Jerusalem would remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty in any future peace agreement.

Trump’s announcement today does not come in a diplomatic vacuum and it fits cozily with recent reports of a new peace plan being cooked up by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with input from Jared Kushner. Under the reported plan, the Palestinians would not gain control of East Jerusalem; their capital would be in Abu Dis, a suburb situated east of East Jerusalem. The Palestinian state would lack contiguity and would consist of disjointed sections of the West Bank where only limited sovereignty would be exercised.

While American officials insist their final plan is still months away, today’s announcement clearly indicates which way the wind is blowing. And even Trump’s fleeting reference today to a two-state solution -- the U.S. “would support [it] if agreed to by both sides” -- fell far short of a U.S. policy preference and in essence gave Israel veto power over the very concept.

IF THERE’S a bright spot in the wake of Trump’s speech, it is the nearly unanimous response of the international community against it. The leaders of France, Germany, and Great Britain have all rejected Trump’s statement, as have Pope Francis and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. This reaction prompted one Twitter activist to sagely suggest that, “If the rest of the world wants to attempt to save the ... Two State solution then they must unilaterally recognise the State of Palestine and East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine.”

Important, too, have been the criticisms heaped on the announcement by a range of Jewish American organizations, including the Reform movement, J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as by the leaders of the Meretz party and the Joint List faction in the Knesset.

Donald Trump today gave up the United States’ pretense to serve as an “honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just as he removed the U.S. from a leadership role on climate change back in June when he walked away from the Paris Accord, so has Trump now ceded America’s central diplomatic role in the Middle East. Moving forward, it will be up to the rest of the world to compensate for America’s abdication of responsibility and keep the embers of peace from being extinguished completely.

Ron Skolnik is associate editor of Jewish Currents. Follow him on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.