The Mideast lessons that Trump will have to relearn

The trouble with U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians is that every four or eight years a new administration needs to learn anew the basics of the conflict. With the casual disregard he displayed for Palestinian interests and the two-state solution this week, Donald Trump showed he will be no exception.

In its pure essence, the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a struggle between two peoples on a small strip of land. The only two logical and civilized solutions to such a conflict are an agreement that the two peoples share the power or an agreement that they divide up the land. Any attempt by either side to keep all the land and reject the sharing of power will not succeed. Denying political power to one side while controlling the land, water, air and borders is tantamount to apartheid.

Over the years, various local, regional and international powers, including several U.S. administrations, have tried to get around these facts. They always failed. Yet Trump’s suggestion after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is open to a one-state solution, combined with his disregard for dialogue with Palestinian leaders, suggests we will see another such futile effort.

Since his election, Trump has talked a number of times to Netanyahu, in addition to welcoming him to the White House this week. But Trump has not talked to or accepted a phone call from Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. It is true that contacts between the Trump administration and Palestinian leadership have taken place, but they have mostly concentrated on security matters. Chief Palestinian intelligence head Majed Faraj visited Washington in early February, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited Ramallah and met with Abbas on Tuesday night. But Trump has not shown that he is interested in Palestinian ideas about future statehood as opposed to the fight against terrorism. Palestinians understand the importance of that cause, but they won’t accept a reduction of their political role to that of a police officer guarding Israel, its settlers and its interests.

Encouraged by Netanyahu, Trump appears to think he can avoid engaging with Palestinian leaders by finding surrogates for them in the Arab states. That gambit has been tried repeatedly in past decades, too. Arabs decided in the Rabat Summit in 1974 to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative of Palestinians. They did not alter that position for the Reagan or Bush administrations, and they will not do so for Trump. The “outside-inside” approach that Trump seems ready to embrace fails to take into account that the Arab League and the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic States have already offered, since 2002, a peace plan that agrees to exchange normalizing relations with Israel for the latter’s withdrawal from the areas occupied in 1967.

The problem is that Israel has not been willing to meet those Arab terms. While successive Israeli governments have negotiated with one faction of the PLO (Fatah), they have failed to deliver on the content of any peace deal. Instead, they have continued to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which have tripled in size since the 1993 Oslo accords.

An Israeli withdrawal in return for Arab normalization is generally referred to as the two-state solution. The entire world and half of Israel support such a plan. Yet Trump and Netanyahu casually threw the idea out this week without providing any credible alternative.

Palestinians at one time wanted a one-state solution, but when the PLO called for a secular democratic state in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, Israel called the plans a formula for the destruction of Israel. Successive Israeli leaders insisted on the amendment of the PLO charter to remove such clauses. President Bill Clinton flew to Gaza in 1998 to attend a session of the Palestine National Council to personally witness the amendment of the charter. Now Israel, with Trump’s support, appears to want to go back to the one-state solution, but on its own terms. Palestinians will never agree. Talking directly with Palestinians and setting up fair parameters for a solution are the only logical steps that Washington should take if it is serious about peace in the region.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist.

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