In a conversation between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly, President Trump publicly voiced his support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although this has been the position of all the American presidents for the past 25 years, it was the first time President Trump publicly supported the idea. Reportedly, Netanyahu was not surprised by this sentiment, saying, “I am willing for the Palestinians to have the authority to rule themselves without the authority to harm us. I am sure that any US peace plan will reflect that principle to a great extent, maybe even entirely.” Trump and his team have been working on developing a peace plan for the Middle East that is set to be rolled out in the coming months. In clear terms, Trump maintained that something would happen soon, saying, “It is a dream of mine to be able to get that done prior to the end of my first term. I like a two-state solution.” In a Haaretz op-ed, Chemi Shalev noted that “Even if it doesn’t lead to any breakthrough, Trump’s willingness to say the words ‘two-state solution’ brings peace efforts back to reality, to the only possible solution, the one accepted by 99 percent of the international community. The same hands that derailed the peace train have now ever so slightly put it back on track.”
Tova Lazaroff of the Jerusalem Post noted that whereas many pundits might think President Trump was speaking off the cuff or out of character, his supporting a Palestinian state actually is part of Trump’s “sovereignty doctrine,” which encourages self-determination for all peoples. Further, Lazaroff noted that “a US president who speaks of two states throws a monkey wrench in the strengthening Israeli right-wing political drive to discard all vestiges of a two-state solution, and certainly not one that would come to play in the West Bank.”
Why Does This Matter?
- Jerusalem as a bargaining chip: President Trump views the American embassy move to Jerusalem as a big win for Israel, and something that will, therefore, cost Israel, saying “[moving the embassy to Jerusalem] meant everything. And now, that’s off the table. Now, that will also mean that Israel will have to do something that will be good for the other side.”
- Civilian life: A two-state solution would drastically change the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians living in the area. The plan, if successful, could put an end to decades of conflict between these populations, and people could live harmoniously. On the other hand, a Palestinian state could become a dangerous state, and a hotbed of terrorism, threatening Israel’s security.
- Pressure on Netanyahu: Tova Lazaroff noted that “Trump’s words, as vague as they were, place pressure on Netanyahu to continue to speak of two states, precisely at a time when he will need to cater to his right-wing base as he heads toward the mandated November 2019 election.”
Diversity of Perspectives within Israel
On the face of it, Trump’s public support of two states might not seem to be a big deal, but it turned the Israeli political world upside down. Whereas the right-wing Israeli politicians typically find themselves in agreement with President Trump and his positions and the left-wing Israelis disagree with Trump often, this time, the roles were reversed.
Arutz Sheva reported that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman evaded President Trump’s comments, saying, “The Palestinian state simply doesn’t interest me. What interests me is the Jewish State, and here there are many more acute problems than slogans.” But Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted that as long as his party is part of the government, “a Palestinian state, which is a disaster for Israel, will not be established.” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party doubled down on this sentiment, saying, “The establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories of Judea and Samaria is a bad solution, and as long as the Jewish Home is in the government it will not be established. Not a ‘state minus’ and not a ‘state plus.’ The solution should be regional and not only on the shoulders of the State of Israel.”
Yet the leader of the opposition in Israel, Tzipi Livni, appreciated Trump’s comments, saying that she liked “The two things he [Trump] said about Israel future – both the United States’ firm stand for Israel’s security and his support for a two-state solution.” Even the Israeli NGO Peace Now, which typically disagrees strongly with President Trump, felt positively about his remarks, stating, “We hope that President Trump’s remarks today align him with the only realistic solution to the conflict, and put an end to the rumors and the evasion of negotiations…Even Trump understands that two states is in Israel [best] interest.”
Nevertheless, the Palestinians were not particularly moved by the President’s comments, as Palestinian envoy to the US Husam Zomlot slammed Trump, saying, “Trump’s statements contradict his actions. His policy is destroying any chance for peace.”
- Trump referenced the US’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and stated: “Israel got the first chip and it’s a big one. By taking off the table the embassy moving to Jerusalem, that was always the primary ingredient as to why deals couldn’t get done. Now, that’s off the table. Now, that will also mean that Israel will have to do something that is good for the other side.”a. Why is it meaningful to you to have the United States recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?b. What would you be willing to give up in order to have the United States recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
- Netanyahu has frequently said: “The question is whether the state next to us will be like Costa Rica or like Iran.” What did he mean by this, and what are the implications?
- What does your support of a two-state or one-state solution depend on — your gut; the Torah; whether it is supported by the political leaders you admire; or other?
Practical Classroom Tips
1. Reconcile? Have two students come to the front of the class and each read one of the following quotes:
- “…as long as the Jewish Home party is part of Israel’s government, there will not be a Palestinian state, which would be a disaster for Israel.”
– Naftali Bennett, Minister of Education and leader of the Jewish Home party
- “… the two-state solution means to us that we have a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is the only way to achieve peace.”
– Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas
These statements are completely at odds with each other.
Can there be a way to bridge the gaps? Is there any common ground? Discuss with the class.
2. Vulnerability: Ask students to write a 3-2-1 card:a. Write three things they learned from this.
- Write two things they find particularly interesting.
- Write one thing they are still unsure about.
Encourage them to write and then share what they are unsure about. In order to do this, first model vulnerability yourself. Whether you are an educator or parent, this tool is very helpful to encouraging students and children to share.
3. Debate: Many Americans have strong opinions on the peace process in the Middle East. However, some Israelis feel that Americans should not be entitled to such opinions when they would not have to live with any of the consequences.
What do you think? Should average Americans have a say in the matter, or should the matter lie solely with the Israelis and Palestinians themselves?
For further reading on Israel and the two-state solution, here’s the Wikipedia page for some background info and further reading, and here is a basic overview of what Israelis think of the idea:
Supporting the two-state solution:
- Over 4 million Palestinians live in Gaza and the West Bank. They are not citizens of any country, as they do not have a state of their own and are not Israeli citizens. These populations are under Israeli military control due to safety concerns. Israel should relinquish this control in order for Palestinians to govern themselves.
- Israel takes pride in being both a democratic and Jewish state. By controlling these areas without giving people the right to vote, Israel ceases to be a democracy; by granting these people citizenship, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state (as it would lose its Jewish majority). The only solution is for Israel to divorce itself from the Palestinians and give them a state of their own.
Opposing the two-state solution:
- There is no “partner for peace.” Palestinian leadership has shown much animosity toward Israel and reluctance to live peacefully. Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza strip, explicitly calls for Israel’s destruction. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Israel and have carried out many terrorist attacks against Israel. Israel has no guarantee that a Palestinian state would be a peaceful one.
- Practically speaking, Israel’s safety would be at risk if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank and have to defend its entire border. Additionally, how would Palestinians travel back and forth between the West Bank and Gaza? (See map here for where these areas are.)
- The Jewish People has historic and religious ties to the land of Israel dating back centuries, and has no obligation to give up its rightful land.
- Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar Ilan address regarding a two-state solution
Engaging with Israel: Random but Important
- Prime Minister Netanyahu did not attend the UNESCO conference on anti-Semitism. He stated: “While I commend all efforts to combat anti-Semitism, I have decided not to participate in this week’s UNESCO conference on anti-Semitism due to the organization’s persistent and egregious bias against Israel. Since 2009, UNESCO has passed 71 resolutions condemning Israel and only two resolutions condemning all other countries combined. This is simply outrageous.”
- Syria accidentally shot down a Russian plane over Syria while attempting to hit an Israeli fighter plane, which had been targeting an arms store-house. Fifteen Russians were killed; Israel blames Syria for shooting haphazardly while the Russian defense ministry initially blamed the Israel Air Force, though Russian President Vladimir Putin walked back some of that sentiment. See Michael Koplow’s column on why this moment is an important one in Israel-Russia relations and why it could be potentially dangerous. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, however, is not concerned about the relationship between the two countries and felt confident the Kremlin and Israel would continue to develop its good relationship.