In his month in office, President Donald Trump has challenged several longstanding American policies, only to back off later. The result has been to leave unclear exactly what American policy is toward China, Russia or NATO, among other things.
Last week, at his news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president seemed to back away from America’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said. “I can live with either one.”
As anyone who has followed the Arab-Israeli conflict in recent decades knows, the two-state solution became official U.S. policy under President George W. Bush, and it has been the basis for peace negotiations since the Oslo Accords in President Bill Clinton’s time. Israel was born as a result of the United Nations’ two-state plan in 1947 partitioning what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. And while the other side didn’t accept the compromise then, it is generally considered the best way today to reach a solution that will allow two nations to live side by side in one land.
Jewish organizations from AIPAC to the American Jewish Committee endorse the two-state solution. And it has been the stated objective of virtually every international body or government that has joined in discussion of the issue. So, if the United States’ position on the issue has changed — thereby inevitably redirecting the focus of Middle East regional and international discussion of the issue — that is very significant. The problem is that what Trump said and what his White House thinks may not be the same thing. Trump’s seeming acceptance of a one-state option was followed a day later by his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Hayley, restating U.S. support of a two-state solution, although acknowledging that the administration was “thinking out of the box as well.”
Fresh ideas are always welcome, especially now when many of the old approaches seem to have run their course. Indeed, there are a number of plans circulating that would build trust among the parties, that would synchronize steps to an agreement and that would focus on borders and security first and only tackle the “narrative issues” of national identity when the two sides are ready. But all these ideas are premised on there being an Israel and a Palestine at the end of the process.
So what is U.S. policy now toward Israel-Palestinian peacemaking? Does anyone in the administration even know? A vacuum in American policy is not good for the region. Remember the Obama administration’s fitful and cautious involvement in Syria? That lack of clear policy was almost universally regarded as weakness. How much more confusion will be sown by an incoherent non-policy seemingly launched with the speed and forethought of a tweet?