To speculate that Donald Trump’s victory in Tuesday’s presidential election signals the end of the two-state solution would not be unfounded. In response to Trump’s win, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett declared, “the era of a Palestinian state is over.” Trump’s two Israel advisors, David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, effectively declared the two-state solution dead on arrival in the policy platform they laid out last week. Republicans will control the White House and both chambers of Congress, and there will be no desire to prod the Israeli government to take action on two states when the current coalition has zero interest. We are entering into an era in which the political leaders both here and in Israel are skeptical of the two-state solution, to put it charitably, and once you add Hamas’s continued rule over Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas’s weak standing into the mix, getting to two states has rarely looked more out of reach.
Despite the grim environment, there are a few important points to keep in mind that dictate what supporters of two states should do going forward. While there is no sense in sugarcoating the situation, the underlying structural variables that make the two-state solution the only viable one have not changed, which means that anyone who truly cares about Israel’s future has an obligation to press on rather than sit back and abandon themselves to the tides of ill-conceived policies. This is why working toward two states still matters:
Israelis and Palestinians still support the two-state solution. Just as yesterday majorities of Israelis and Palestinians supported a two-state solution, Trump’s victory does not change that. Were Israelis looking to ditch two states and annex the West Bank, it would have happened a long time ago. There is a reason that Prime Minister Netanyahu feels the need to pay rhetorical lip service to two states, and it is not all about appeasing the Obama administration. Nobody from the Israeli left and center and continuing rightward across the spectrum to Netanyahu himself wants to see a bi-national state, and that is not driven by the preferences of whomever is sitting in the White House.
American Jews still support it. Trump was elected fair and square, but fewer than 30% of American Jews pulled the lever for him, and much like their Israeli counterparts, a majority of American Jews supports two states. To the extent that American Jewish organizations reflect their constituencies and their concerns, abandoning the fight for two states makes no sense just because the denizen of the White House may not share the same view.
The Trump administration is not the only variable. It is sometimes easy to look at the interplay between the U.S. and Israel and come away with the impression that the U.S. is the only outside party that has any impact, but that is decidedly not the case. Even if President Trump were to formally abandon two states as American policy during his administration, Israel still must grapple with the fact that the European Union, Russia, China, and Israel’s Arab neighbors with whom it is so persistently trying to develop better relations all are pushing for Israel to get more serious about a Palestinian state. While the U.S. is unquestionably the most important actor in this regard, it is not the only one.
There’s no telling what a Trump administration will actually do. It would be foolish to be Pollyannaish about Trump’s intentions given his circle of advisers and the general mood within the Republican Party on two states, but the fact remains that Trump has said enough conflicting things about his desire to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table to make the waters a bit muddy. Furthermore, even the George W. Bush administration did not give Israel a blank check on the West Bank or the peace process, for the simple reason that by Bush’s second term, he and his team realized that it was in the U.S.’s interest for there to be progress on the two-state solution. The Trump administration will have far more pressing issues to deal with in the Middle East, with Iran and Syria being the two that will test the new White House immediately, and the linkage argument that places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the root of all regional problems has thankfully been thoroughly debunked. But as every president for nearly five decades has realized, progress on the Israeli-Arab front makes it easier for other American priorities in the region to be carried out, and President Trump may very well eventually come to the same conclusion.
The two-state idea is still the only way to keep Israel secure, Jewish, and democratic. There is nothing more fashionable than bashing the two-state solution as a utopian anachronism that has run its course. But much like Winston Churchill’s famous dictum about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others, the two-state solution is still the only viable end point, no matter how difficult or problematic it may be. We have yet to see anyone put forth a workable scenario that can realistically replace it, and the status quo is simply not sustainable indefinitely from a security, demographic, and diplomatic standpoint. The fact that both the American and Israeli governments are not tripping over themselves to make the hard decisions required to implement two states does not make the idea a bankrupt one. Roger Cohen’s recent New York Times piece on the death of the two-state solution was correct that only incremental steps make sense right now, but was wrong in that the larger idea is still very much alive because there is no other possible path. As pointed out by the two hundred former generals that make up the Commanders for Israel’s Security, implementing steps on the ground that preserve the two-state option is not only compatible with Israel’s security but necessary for Israel’s security in the present moment. That the implementation process of getting to two states has been rife with missteps and crippling bumps in the road does not change the fact that the principle itself is still right.
The bottom line is that if you believed when you woke up on Tuesday that two states is crucial to Israel’s future, the Trump victory changes nothing. It will make the next four years undoubtedly more difficult, and the political environment is now even worse than it was. But just as you wouldn’t simply sit back and throw up your hands in acceptance of other White House policies that you believe to be disastrous, you cannot afford to do so on this front either. If you care about Israel, and you want to see it remain Jewish and democratic while guaranteeing its security, the two-state solution is the only way. Not doing all you can to make sure that it is preserved as an option going forward is simply irresponsible.
David A. Halperin is Executive Director and Michael J. Koplow is Policy Director, of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF)