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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Israel-Palestine: Can Trump seal the deal?

Separation wall

A view of the separation wall [Photo: Dafna Kaplan/Flickr]

He’s written the book on it, won an election on his ability to do it, and seems to think he’s the world’s best at it, but can Donald Trump make the ultimate deal: a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict?

At first glance, the forecast does not look promising. Trump sent shockwaves through the Middle East when he announced during his campaign that if elected, he would relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Although Trump hasn’t yet acted on this promise, his newly appointed ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, made clear his strong support for the idea, expressing that he intended to work out of “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had made similar promises, only to back down once in office. Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while many Israelis lay claim to Jerusalem as the “undivided capital” of Israel. Indeed, an inability to come to a final agreement on the status of Jerusalem ultimately prevented the two parties from reaching an agreement at Camp David in 2000.

However, even if an embassy move to Jerusalem does not happen under the Trump administration, he will have to contend with several additional challenges if he is serious about achieving a two-state solution. These include the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and an ascendant Israeli right-wing movement.

Settlement expansions

Ever since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 following the Six-Day War, settlements have become a growing obstacle to peace. Despite the Obama administration’s consistent and sharp rebukes of Israeli settlement activity, the settlement population in the West Bank expanded by over 100,000 during his eight years in office. According to the Israeli Interior Ministry, there are over 760,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem combined. Although most settlements are located near the Green Line (which divides Israel from the Palestinian territories), and could be incorporated into Israel via “land swaps” with the Palestinians, many other settlements lie deep in the West Bank. Large settlements such as Ariel and Kiryat Arba, as well as dozens of “outpost” settlements unrecognized by the Israeli government, are located beyond Israel’s unilaterally constructed separation wall. These would likely have to be dismantled to ensure the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state.

While Israel has successfully removed settlers in the past (from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the Sinai in the 1980s), these events were extremely polarizing and expensive. In Gaza, Israel had to deploy 14,000 soldiers to forcibly remove 8,500 settlers. Many settlers refused eviction orders by barricading themselves in houses and synagogues, using barbed wire and burning tires to fend off Israeli soldiers. Others took up arms on their rooftops, and one West Bank settler set herself on fire in front of a Gaza checkpoint in protest. The average family evacuated from the settlements cost Israel over $1.3 million in compensation and resettlement costs.

More recently, the Israeli government deployed 3,000 soldiers and police officers earlier this month to forcibly evacuate 40 families from the West Bank outpost of Amona. The operation descended into a bloody confrontation with over 1,000 settlers who hurled rocks and glass bottles at the Israeli police, causing 60 injuries.

As difficult as these evictions were for the Israeli government, none of them compare in magnitude to the evacuations Israel would have to undertake under a two-state arrangement. Such an operation would likely involve the removal of over 100,000 settlers, many of whom are second- and third-generation residents of the West Bank. Survey findings indicate that roughly forty percent of households affected would refuse to comply and would therefore need to be forcefully removed.  If implemented, this undertaking is projected to cost at least $10 billion. Not only would the removal engender prohibitive costs, but the very fabric of communities would be torn apart. Pupils would be abruptly separated from their schools, religious adherents from their synagogues, and entrepreneurs from their businesses and factories. It would undoubtedly provoke fierce resistance from settlers, and would likely result in tremendous casualties. Whether Israeli society can withstand such a large-scale self-inflicted trauma is uncertain.

What is clear, however, is that the current Israeli leadership, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seems more intent on expanding settlements than on removing them. Since Trump took office, Netanyahu has wasted no time in testing the limits of the new American administration. On January 24, Israel approved 566 new housing units in East Jerusalem, along with 2,500 units in the West Bank. Over a third of these units were designated for Ariel, an urban settlement located in the heart of what Palestinians hope will be their future state.

Just one week later, Netanyahu approved an additional 3,000 settlement housing units and publicly promoted the creation of an entirely new settlement. This is a sharp departure from Israel’s policy over the past several years, which has been to add housing units only to already existing settlements to accommodate their “natural growth.” These bold moves also fly in the face of a United Nations resolution passed in December with the rare abstention of the United States, which condemned Israeli settlement construction as a “flagrant violation of international law.”

The ascendancy of Israel’s right wing

Netanyahu’s recent barrage of settlement projects reflects his rightward drift in the face of an ascendant Israeli right wing. Many members of Netanyahu’s coalition government are pressing him to make the most of what they perceive to be a historic opportunity with Trump in the White House, following eight years of bitter gridlock between Obama and Netanyahu.

By accelerating settlement construction, Israel’s right-wing leaders hope to incorporate the promised land of “Judea and Samaria” (the preferred Israeli term for the West Bank) into a greater Israel. In a forceful repudiation of the two-state solution, Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, recently proclaimed that “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the center of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause.” Echoing a similar sentiment, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has referred to the two-state narrative as a “damaging anachronism,” and as an “illusory solution in search of a non-existent problem.”

Husam Zomlot, the strategic affairs adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, responded to the escalation of Israeli right-wing rhetoric and the announcements of additional settlements with indignation, suggesting that “this is a government of settlers that has abandoned the two-state solution and fully embraced the settler agenda.” President Trump, for his part, has refused to condemn Israel for its intended expansion of settlements, though his administration earlier stated that settlement expansions “may not be helpful” in achieving peace.

If not two states, one state?

In light of recent trends, the two-state solution increasingly looks like a fanciful notion, rather than a viable option rooted in reality. So how about one state? Traditionally, the one-state solution has been propagated primarily by extremist groups on both sides, such as Hamas and the Israeli settler movements. Under their ideal outcomes, the entire landmass between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River would be entitled exclusively to one group at the cost of the unwanted “other.” How exactly this would be achieved is unclear. Given that neither group would voluntarily renounce its right to a land that they consider to be rightfully theirs, it would surely involve some bloodshed.

However, the idea of a one-state solution – specifically, a binational state – in which the rights of minorities are safeguarded through constitutional power-sharing has become increasingly popular among moderates from both sides, as an alternative to the preferred, but unlikely, two-state outcome. Writers such as Ali Abunimah, Ghada Karmi, and Caroline Glick, among others, have written extensively and convincingly about the need to consider this alternative road to peace.

Some believe that Israelis and Palestinians already share a single state, given the realities on the ground. They claim that the Palestinian territories are under Israeli sovereignty since the latter exercises ultimate control over Palestinian borders, land, and airspace. Under this logic, Palestinians should be given the same right to vote in Israeli elections as their settler neighbors. To deny this right, they argue, is to disenfranchise the Palestinians and to impose a system of apartheid.

For others, the appeal of a binational state rests in the idea that both Israelis and Palestinians would have access to all of historic Palestine/Eretz Yisrael. Jerusalem would no longer have to be divided. Settlers in the West Bank would not have to relocate from the land that they consider to be their sacred birthright. On the other hand, Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be allowed to visit or relocate to their places of origin in present-day Israel.

In this sense, the outcome could be a win-win situation. However, the question of Palestinian refugees’ right of return – considered sacrosanct by many of the displaced – would also have to be addressed under such an arrangement. It is hard to envision the Palestinians agreeing to an outcome that does not allow for some form of the right of return, or at the very least, some financial compensation for refugees.

This vision, of course, depends on the optimistic expectation that Israelis and Palestinians could learn, over time, to overcome their deep mutual mistrust and to embrace a multicultural coexistence. Israelis would also have to be willing to live in a state where they might no longer be a majority. This means that they would have to forfeit the Jewish status of the Israeli state, and instead embrace a secular democratic government. Their minority status would also require that strong protections for minorities and high levels of regional autonomy be firmly embedded in a shared constitution.

Israelis and Palestinians are at a pivotal crossroads. Whether two states or one state, neither route will be easy. Each requires substantial sacrifices and goodwill from both sides. But time is of the essence. Israelis and Palestinians are unlikely to sit at the negotiating table without a third party to pressure them and to serve as mediator. Traditionally, the United States has played this role, but to no avail.

Trump prides himself on his deal-making abilities. He even co-authored a book on it. But for Trump to secure what he has referred to as “the ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, he will have to effectively deal with the tremendous hurdles posed by settlements and a formidable Israeli right wing. Much hinges on his anticipated meeting with Netanyahu on February 15. For now, the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse remains in a delicate balance.