Trump Shrugs Off the Two-State Solution

In a surreal joint press conference with the Israeli prime minister, the president did away with a cornerstone of American diplomacy in the Middle East.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

By most accounts, July will mark the 80th anniversary of the two-state solution. It was in 1937 that the British Peel Commission set about to understand why Arab riots had engulfed Mandatory Palestine. “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country,” the commission concluded. “There is no common ground between them. Their national aspirations are incompatible.” The commission determined that the land should be divided into two countries—one Jewish and one Arab.

Since then, the germ of the Peel Commission has served as the most-agreed-upon guidepost for resolving what is now a century-long conflict. On Wednesday, however, President Donald Trump broke with decades of U.S. diplomacy by announcing that he wasn’t committed to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the two-state solution. “I’m looking at two states and one state, I like the one that both parties like,” the president said at a joint White House press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I can live with either one.” Trump was echoed more vaguely by Netanyahu, who offered that he would rather deal with “substance,” rather than “labels.” The only problem, which the Peel Commission identified all those years ago, is that the conflict itself is defined by labels.

The impressiveness of the two-state solution’s longevity is dampened only by the fact that it is the sole, workable answer to the problem. The two-states-for-two-people idea has improbably survived, through the war for Israeli independence that followed the United Nations vote to partition the land in 1947, and Jordan’s subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Egypt’s subsequent occupation of Gaza. When Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and quadrupled in size during the Six-Day War in 1967, both President Lyndon Johnson and the United Nations reiterated that there would there would be no peace without a two-state solution, and emphasized the need for “secure and recognized borders” between Israelis and Palestinians.

Despite the Yom Kippur War and the beginning of the Israeli settlement enterprise, the two-state solution persisted through the violence, terrorism, and acrimony of the 1970s. When Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979, two-states-for-two-peoples lingered in the subtext. When the Oslo Accord was signed on the South Lawn of the White House in 1993, it sought, at long last, to formally institute the two-state solution.

Though increasingly diminished and undermined, the two-state solution has endured since then—through the assassination of an Israeli prime minister, an intifada, the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, and three subsequent wars. In some of his final remarks as secretary of state in December, John Kerry made an urgent plea for the survival of the idea. “Here is a fundamental reality: if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic—it cannot be both—and it won’t ever really be at peace. Moreover, the Palestinians will never fully realize their vast potential in a homeland of their own with a one state solution.”

Nevertheless, after decades of American diplomacy, jockeying, and cajoling, the two-state imperative did not survive a four-question press conference with President Donald Trump. And, in its place, there are still no other alternatives.