Since assuming office in January 2017, US President Donald Trump made strong indications of a sea change in US foreign policy towards key Middle East ally Israel: an intention to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the nomination of David Friedman – openly pro-Israeli settlement – as ambassador to Israel, against the advice of five former US ambassadors to Israel; and the appointment of neophyte businessman-turned-diplomat Jared Kushner as Middle East Peace envoy, despite the inherent conflict of interest entailed in family donations to the Bet El settlement. Now, in the strongest signal yet of a complete departure from the official US stance since the Clinton era in the 1990s, Trump has publicly denounced US commitment to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution.
This US administration’s position is not only dangerous and counter-productive for security in the Middle East, but also deeply flawed from international legal and political perspectives.
Draining the swamp
US policy on the Palestinian Question is of the utmost importance to peace and stability for both Israelis and Palestinians. The US is Israel’s strongest and – with over $125bn in bilateral assistance to date – most benevolent foreign ally, and has long been involved in attempts to broker peace. Before conferences in Annapolis, Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, and even the ill-fated Rogers Plan, the US was mediating in the Arab-Israeli conflict – first in the wake of the 1949 Lausanne Conference and later as a member of the UN Security Council calling for a withdrawal of Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in 1967.
To discard decades of negotiations, institutional memory, and hard-won trust from all parties to the conflict – which include neighbouring states like Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – is a flippant ‘drain the swamp’ reaction typical of an administration that culled top diplomats upon arrival. The naivety, however, of Trump’s nonchalant and over-simplistic support for a solution “that both parties like” has real world impact that risks bringing about even more bloodshed and destruction: another intifada, regional instability, support for Daesh.
Even the hawkish Netanyahu – undoubtedly tempted to exploit the opportunities that Trump embodies – knows that a one-state solution is a non-starter. Though the Israeli position has long shifted from a model of “conflict resolution” to one of “conflict management”, his restrained circumvention to focus on substance over semantics betrays the realisation that a one-state solution is fundamentally incompatible with his own political platform that Israel is and shall always remain a Jewish State.
The seppuku of the one-state solution
A one-state solution poses an existential threat to the state of Israel; its active pursuit would be a self-inflicted wound. A combination of the current Muslim-majority Palestinian population and estimates of their future growth would see the demographics of Israel’s population shift so drastically that Judaism would become a minority religion in a unified Israel at most by the end of the decade judging by current projections that the population of Palestinians and Israelis are due to even out by the end of this year.
To remain a Jewish State under a one-state solution would therefore entail the creation of a dominant minority – a government of some people, by some people, for all people. It is a challenge to find an example of a democratic or human rights-compliant dominant minority state; conversely the list is long of autocracies, dictatorships, and apartheid states that practiced this form of governance – the Bahraini Sunnis, the Syrian Alawites, the Ethiopian Tigrayans, and the South Africa National Party are but a few.
None of these models would be desirable or legitimate for a future Israel, an understanding that is shared by the major institutions and regional blocs that support a two-state solution – the European Union, Arab League, United Nations, and ASEAN. Their agreement on the fundamental merits of co-existent Israeli and Palestinian states is not by coincidence or blind mimicry, but rather a solid understanding of both the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict and less desirable – even catastrophic – alternatives, including renewed violence and the ex-post facto legitimisation of illegal Israeli settlements and state-mandated land appropriations.
Even if such a course was pursued, there are significant irrevocable political and legal actions that have already been undertaken. While the US voice may speak first and loudest on Israel, there is a longstanding international structure to recognition of statehood that safeguard against even Trump’s seemingly impulsive actions.
The legal and political implications
That Palestine is already recognised as a de facto state by a variety of United Nations organs and agencies including the General Assembly and UNESCO is important, but not conclusive in its assertion of statehood. The strongest argument for the inability to abandon the two-state solution is found in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which provides that “recognition of a state . . . is unconditional and irrevocable.”
Of the 192 UN Member States, 135 nations – almost all countries on the African, Asian, and South American continents – have recognised Palestine’s statehood; two of these – Russia and China – are permanent members of the UN Security Council, which under Article 4 of the UN Charter holds final authority over Member State acceptance to the United Nations.
These are not baby steps; rather, Palestine enjoys more international recognition than Kosovo. To suggest that the Palestinian state might somehow merge into the state of Israel should be viewed no differently to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, as illegal a move as the reabsorption of Singapore into Malaysia or the reintegration of Bangladesh into Pakistan would be.
In fact, the only obstacle to the complete fulfilment of the criteria for Palestinian statehood – and its legal establishment as a sovereign state under the criteria of the Montevideo Convention – seems to be the lack of a defined territory. This most contentious issue encompasses not only the question of where Israel should end and Palestine begin – and therefore settlement activity – but also the legal status of Jerusalem; it is the reason why since 1998, Clinton, Bush and Obama have all exercised their Presidential Waver to suspend the Jerusalem Embassy Act, under which Congress demanded the relocation of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Irrespective of what Trump may suggest or even do, the two-state solution cannot be dead – certainly not unilaterally. Nonetheless, statements that undermine the two-state solution – deliberate or negligent – shift attention to tangential discussions that bear no relevance to a secure and sustainable peace for Israel and Palestine. In doing so they waste valuable time, stoke emotional fires, and suggest that Palestine can be wiped off the map, ironically an accusation that Netanyahu has – falsely – made against neighbouring Iran in its approach to Israel.