Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This week, Alpher discusses the mixed messages from the Trump-Netanyahu press statements last week in Washington - two-state solution or one-state solution, direct bilateral negotiations or broader Arab involvement; what Netanyahu's increasingly powerful right-wing supporters want; "the regional approach"; and the nuances of the one-state proposition.
Q. The Trump-Netanyahu press statements last week in Washington seemingly sent mixed messages: two-state solution or one-state; direct bilateral negotiations or broader Arab involvement from the region. Can you make sense of all this?
A. All three “solutions” were alluded to in Washington, but not necessarily sincerely. The clear impression was that Prime Minister Netanyahu at least knew what he was talking about whereas President Trump did not, and was basically telling Netanyahu what Netanyahu had asked him to say. The back story was Netanyahu’s political needs back home, where his coalition actively supports positions--particularly since Trump was elected--that appear to be to the right of those of the prime minister. Netanyahu needs to maneuver between his right wing, his perception of what Trump wants from him and, above and beyond everything else, his own need to pursue status quo politics in order to remain in office.
Q. Okay, let’s deconstruct this. What do Netanyahu’s increasingly powerful right-wing supporters want and how did Netanyahu manage this with Trump?
A. Those supporters are united in opposing a two-state solution and favoring some
variety of one-state solution. We’ll get to the nuances shortly. Before Netanyahu’s Washington trip, they pressured
him to extract a Trump endorsement of this approach along with a green light for unbridled settlement expansion
that would bury the two-state solution. Based on their reading of Trump’s approach to Israel, they floated
proposals for Israel to annex a settlement bloc or two immediately. But Trump, more or less at the same time, was
apparently listening to advice to go slow on the settlements/Palestinian issue in order not to alienate the Arab
partners he potentially needs if he wants to ramp up pressure on Iran and produce an Israeli-Palestinian
The outcome was two Trump statements: about a “great peace deal” directly negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians with both having to make compromises; and “two-state, one-state, I like the one that both parties like”. Netanyahu for his part volunteered that he needed two things from the Palestinians: recognition of a Jewish state and an end to incitement, along with retention by Israel of security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River. Trump made a reference to restricting the settlements and Netanyahu vowed to reach an understanding on this issue with Trump, “so we don’t keep bumping into each other”.
Netanyahu could return home and tell his coalition that he persuaded Trump to leave open the theoretical possibility of a one-state “solution”, while he could signal to more moderate circles that Trump wants limits on settlement expansion and a bilaterally-negotiated deal--meaning, inevitably, two-states, but a deal based on demands like recognition of a Jewish state that Netanyahu judges the Palestinians cannot accept. To one and all Netanyahu could assert that he stood fast behind Israel’s security needs concerning both the Palestinians and, much further to the east, Iran, and that here he and Trump were in agreement.
Q. The regional approach also came up.
A. Trump appeared to endorse Netanyahu’s mention of the regional approach when the latter alluded to “new avenues of peace” and “newfound Arab partners”. Here again, Trump presumably has no concrete idea what this means but was happy to be helpful to Netanyahu.
Q. Well, what does it mean?
A. The “regional solution” reflects two parallel strategic developments of recent years.
On the one hand, the Palestinian issue has stalemated. Even before Netanyahu took office in 2009, Ehud Olmert’s
far-reaching two-state offer to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was rejected by the latter--seemingly
an indication that even moderate (but weak) leaders on both sides could not bridge the gaps between them. Once
revolutionary chaos broke out around Israel in early 2011, particularly in Egypt and Syria, both Netanyahu and
Abbas appeared to hunker down in a “keep your powder dry” mode and the region basically ceased focusing on the
On the other hand the rise of ISIS in the Levant, coupled with Iran’s drive to attain regional power status by exploiting both its nuclear deal with the international community and its capacity to recruit Shiite or proto-Shiite allies in Iraq and Syria, generated a sense of shared threat regarding extreme Islam on the part of Israel and the still stable Sunni Arab states. Accordingly, Israel’s strategic cooperation with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and with Egypt has blossomed, with the Palestinian issue relegated to the back burner. This has prompted Netanyahu to put forth the concept of a regional or “top down” peace process whereby the stable Sunni Arab states, for the sake of regional security, make peace with Israel and compel the Palestinians to make the conceptual and territorial concessions Netanyahu needs. This in effect reverses the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that offers Israel regional peace and normalization only after it reaches full peace agreements with the Palestinians and Syrians.
Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia clearly need and value Israel’s strategic cooperation against ISIS and Iran. But they have given no public indication whatsoever that they will compel the Palestinians to make new concessions or that they will offer new peace and normalization ties with Israel prior to a Palestinian solution. Netanyahu presumably wants Trump to pressure them to do so. This is a very doubtful proposition. Neither the Sunni Arab states nor the Palestinians are willing.
Q. Back to the one-state proposition. What are the nuances?
A. They are vast. All are based on several highly problematic premises that are broadly
agreed among the growing chorus of one-state advocates: the Palestinians are incapable of supporting a genuine
two-state solution that ensures Israel’s security; the Palestinians have never had a state and have not “earned”
one; Israel has the legal, historical and religious right to claim all the territory west of the Jordan River; the
Arab world is either too preoccupied or too indifferent to make a fuss over Israeli annexation; and all or most of
the West Bank can be annexed while Israel remains both Jewish and democratic.
Some one-state advocates who fancy themselves pro-democracy liberals pledge that all Palestinians will receive full Israeli citizenship. President Reuven Rivlin leads this camp and recently renewed his advocacy. As a devoted Zionist from the Jabotinsky school, Rivlin insists a Greater Israel can remain Jewish and democratic. I have never heard a satisfactory explanation from him as to how, with an eventual Arab majority, democratic Greater Israel can remain Jewish. When pressed on the issue, Rivlin fudges his answers.
Others are more open about ways to ensure Israel’s Jewish nature in an expanded country: by limiting the country’s democratic nature and ruling over second-class Arab citizens in one way or another. Thus, there will be a loyalty test or oath for would be West Bank Arab citizens of Israel that most would fail; or there will be a waiting period. Some go so far as to suggest bribing Palestinians with large emigration grants to leave. Others propose that Jordan will provide the citizenship, including participation in Jordanian elections, even as the Palestinians will continue to live in Greater Israel. Others still, like Jewish Home leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennet, suggest that West Bank areas A and B--some 40 percent of the territory where nearly all West Bank Palestinians live--will enjoy autonomy in a set of enclaves surrounded by Israel, or will be awarded civil and municipal status similar to East Jerusalem Arabs but will have limited if any access to Israeli citizenship.
Then too, there are “creative” solutions. The Jerusalem Post’s Carolyn Glick asserts confidently (and without any basis in solid research) that West Bank demographic figures are highly exaggerated--there are only 1.5 million Arabs there, not 2.5 million--and that one million American Jews will immigrate to Israel, thereby ensuring the Jews’ demographic and democratic majority after annexation of all West Bank Palestinians.
For the record: Jordan is not interested in adopting expat Palestinian citizens; most Palestinians prefer full-fledged Palestinian citizenship even over a truly egalitarian (and imaginary) one-state scheme; a million American Jews are not exactly lining up to move to Israel; and, when you scratch below the surface, nearly all advocates of Greater Israel are prepared to sacrifice democratic values because they simply covet the complete Land of Israel more than they value living in a democratic country.
Q. Perhaps Trump understands none of this. But surely Netanyahu does.
A. Netanyahu actually appears to be suspicious of these one-state schemes and frequently
states that he does not want Israel to become an apartheid or bi-national state. But he says this much more often
than he reiterates his support for the obvious and ultimate alternative: a two-state solution. Moreover, he
consistently forms right-wing coalitions that favor settlement expansion and that increasingly reject
Netanyahu’s fall-back position is to not decide in order to live another day politically. Hence his contradictory requests from Trump: don’t insist on two states, mention one state, but endorse bilateral negotiations and restrain me on settlements. These are consistent signs of weak strategic leadership by a master political tactician.
Netanyahu appears, with good reason, to be extremely cautious regarding Trump. The Jerusalem US embassy issue and open presidential endorsement of settlements disappeared very quickly on Trump’s watch. Despite endorsing Trump as a friend of the Jewish people, Netanyahu is well aware of growing anti-Semitism in Trump’s America and the presence of anti-Semites on Trump’s team. On the eve of his Washington visit he even admonished his ministers that Israel would have to take into account the new US president’s “character”, a statement that was understood to refer to Trump’s superficial shoot-from-the-hip policy-making.
But even if we find some solace in Netanyahu’s caution during his White House visit, the bottom line from Washington is yet another stage in Israel’s ongoing slide down the slippery slope toward a disastrous one-state reality--even if it goes by another name in the Trump era.