About Israel, Trump puts likeability over substance

Compared to the frosty personal relationship between former President Barrack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the recent visit of Netanyahu to Washington, D.C., culminating in a press conference on Feb. 15 with President Donald Trump had all the indications of a real "bromance." Gone was Netanyahu's grimacing and wincing at Obama's remarks. In its place, were laughter and wide smiles as the two leaders seemed to agree on most everything that the other said, a real "Vulcan mind meld" as veteran U.S. diplomat and Mideast hand David Aaron Miller so aptly described it.

Beyond the warm and fuzzy atmosphere, however, the press conference, and what was said at it, revealed a multitude of historical and factual ignorance from Trump, a calculated reframing of the Israeli-Palestinian issue by Netanyahu, and not-so-subtle hints dropped by both leaders about the real possibility of some grand deal that was truly delusional.

Three main issues stood out about the Trump-Netanyahu press conference that deserve closer analysis.

On the issue of the two-state solution, not a word was uttered by either leader in opening remarks. It was only when reporters started asking questions that both leaders responded. Netanyahu, a master at communication and deft as always in reframing the issue away from its real core elements, dismissed the fixation on the two-state solution "label" and said he was more concerned with substance. He rhetorically asked what a two-state solution meant to Palestinians and then answered for them by saying it would be an extremist and terrorist Islamist state that did not recognize Israel and that would serve as a base for attacks on Israel. He then added that there were two prerequisites for entering negotiating with the Palestinians about statehood. The first, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, is an old one. What was new was the second condition: "Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River [West Bank]," in essence meaning continued Israeli military control over a future Palestinian state, whether over its borders, airspace or even internally.

Trump, on the other hand, responded to the two-state solution question by saying: "I'm looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like. … I can live with either." Both Palestinians — who interpreted this as a hint from Trump that he would agree to one state where Palestinians and Israelis lived as equal citizens — and Israelis who interpreted it as an endorsement from Trump for Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank to form an Israel-plus, are sadly mistaken. All it really demonstrated was Trump's astonishing lack of preparation or knowledge about a multi-layered issue of deep complexity. Displaying his Twitter-limited ability to absorb information, Trump did what he does best, he "winged" it, leaving it as always for administration spokespersons to later explain what he supposedly really meant.

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This aversion to taking the time to gain real knowledge and depth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows that Trump didn't realize the significance of what he said, namely that one Israeli-Palestinian binational state could only mean one of two things: a state where Palestinian citizens would eventually outnumber Israelis, thereby ending the Israeli dream of a Jewish state; or a state where Palestinians are not given the right to vote and live as second-class residents, thereby transforming Israel from a democratic state to an apartheid one.

The second issue that stood out in the press conference was on the question of Israeli settlements. Startling Netanyahu, who clearly did not expect it, Trump told him: "I'd like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit," quickly adding when he noticed Netanyahu's surprise that "we'll work something out." On this question at least, Trump seems to have both gotten some cautionary advice on the issue and actually listened to it. This followed comments Trump had made regarding settlements in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom on Feb. 12, where Trump said settlements "don't help the [peace] process." It is important to keep in mind, however, that Trump was only referring to new settlement building and not existing settlements in the occupied West Bank, which currently number 130, are populated by 400,000 settlers, and along with their regional councils, constitute almost 40 percent of the West Bank. This is the real question — whether Trump considers existing settlements on occupied Palestinian land as legal and valid before Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or whether he will adhere to international unanimity that the West Bank is under an Israeli occupation.

The third issue was one that the leaders did not explicitly spell out but dropped hints about, using phrases such as "new concept" and "bigger deal" with "newfound allies." What was meant by this was a peace deal with the [Sunni] Arab world first, namely Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Morocco, and then moving on to the Palestinian arena. The logic here is that along with Egypt and Jordan, which already have peace agreements with Israel, this will create irresistible pressure on the Palestinians to succumb to a peace deal dictated by Israel. What this rabbit-hole fantasy forgets is that no Arab leader will improve relations with Israel before serious progress is first made with the Palestinians, not because they sincerely care about the Palestinian cause, but because they fear for their political legitimacy and survival.

It is true that the Sunni Arab states may have even become to regard Israel as a strategic partner in confronting Iran regionally and in their proxy wars with Iran in Syria and Yemen, but what the "regional deal" misunderstands is the deep attachment to the Palestinian cause in Arab politics, the Arab street and the Muslim world at large. Consequently, no Arab country can survive jettisoning sovereign Palestinian independence or accepting Israeli control over occupied East Jerusalem

Whether the Trump-Netanyahu bromance will continue to blossom is hard to predict. If Trump's actions or inactions provide a spur for the unleashing of the maximalist Israeli right, Netanyahu will rue the days of the Obama presidency that served as a useful foil to check the Israeli right. Netanyahu realizes that unchecked settlement activity and annexation of any parts of the West Bank will completely isolate Israel internationally and even put him on a collision course with the United States. For Netanyahu, the overriding goal is the preservation of the status quo, which allows Israel to slowly chip away at the prospects of a viable Palestinian state, preparing the groundwork for future negotiations with the Palestinians he knows Israel will eventually have to enter, but at which the fait accompli of Israeli settlements in the West Bank ensures the creation of a small, rump, unviable Palestinian state.

[Ra'fat Al-Dajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]


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