If President-elect Donald Trump is determined to upend the country’s decades-old, bipartisan approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as it seems he is — then he must move quickly to articulate a new, workable alternative or risk lasting damage to the peace process.
Longstanding American policy is to pursue a “two-state solution” that would leave Israeli and Palestinian states standing side by side. And Wednesday, departing Secretary of State John Kerry made an impassioned plea for keeping the idea alive.
“Is ours the generation that gives up on the dream of a Jewish, democratic state of Israel living in peace and security with its neighbors?” he asked, in a question that could have been directed at Trump. “Because that is really what is at stake.”
The two-state solution is, no doubt, a dream imperiled.
Peace talks collapsed amid mutual recriminations in 2014. Violence on the ground has hardened positions on both sides. And the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is making it more and more difficult to imagine what two states would even look like.
But even a skeptical commitment to the two-state solution serves an important purpose — containing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the short term, and preserving hope for a resolution in the long run. It sends the message that America’s commitment to democracy and human rights has no exceptions, and includes the millions of Palestinians now deprived of full self-governance.
Trump has paid lip service to the two-state solution. But as is often the case, he seems more focused on provocation — on breaking with orthodoxy, no matter how unwise.
He has pledged to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a contested city holy to Jews and Muslims alike. And if he follows through on that promise, he is sure to upset not only the Palestinian public, but the broader Arab world.
It’s not hard to imagine violent clashes. And even if the protest is more restrained, it would make it harder for Arab leaders to do business with Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu going forward.
The president-elect has also made an inflammatory pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, an ardent supporter of the West Bank settlements that stand as the most visible impediment to peace.
If the Trump administration abandons past US policy and offers full-throated support for those settlements, it would not only stir sharp opposition from Arab states, it could also empower the most extreme elements of Israeli politics.
Netanyahu, after all, has used American condemnation of settlement expansion as an excuse to tamp down the most aggressive elements of his right-wing coalition. Those elements, made more powerful, can only set back the prospects for peace.
Trump’s opening moves are deeply worrisome. It is difficult to conceive of the grand strategy they serve. But if the president-elect has one, he must lay it out now.