EDITORIAL: Trump and Israel: casual, careless and dangerous

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Donald Trump’s press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday was not, as it would have been with any other US president, his abandoned commitment to a two-state solution, but the casualness and carelessness with which he dropped it: his jocular tone, fumbling words and evident ignorance of the issue. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like,” he said, brushing aside the trifling matter of how Israelis and Palestinians might come to an agreement in this intractable conflict .

Whether his remarks formed part of a considered strategy is doubtful. Whether his ditching of the commitment was even intentional is unclear. His ambassador to the United Nations has now said the US “absolutely” supports the two-state solution, yet is “thinking out of the box as well”. His administration has sent fluctuating messages on settlements and relocating the US embassy, seemingly moved by whoever spoke to him last. Some seize on the inconsisstencies as cause for optimism. They are not clutching at straws, but dynamite.

The overall tendency of the administration is disturbing. Symptomatic is his choice of ambassador. David Friedman has financially supported illegal settlements, backed annexation of territory in the West Bank and made wildly offensive remarks about liberal Jews, for which he belatedly expressed regret at a heated confirmation hearing today. Even if Mr Trump can at times be pushed back, his lack of knowledge and steadiness, combined with a determination to wade in, makes him more dangerous, not less. What the US president says matters – even if it changes the next day. It sets the parameters. His remarks ran counter to established US policy and the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s. Mr Netanyahu has at least paid lip service to the two-state solution. A small majority of Israelis and Palestinians still support it. Backing for a single state is far lower.

There is good reason for that, spelled out by John Kerry in his last-ditch attempt to protect the moribund peace process before the incoming administration could bury it. Demographics ensure that a single state cannot be both Jewish and democratic. The ideal of an egalitarian binational state is a fantasy. Far more likely, given the inherent asymmetry in negotiations between an internationally recognised state and a non-state under occupation, would be the relegation of Palestinians to permanent second-class status – betraying not only them, but Israel’s founding ideals. It would be wrong, and disastrous. Two peoples so bitterly at odds on their terms of separation cannot be expected to embrace each other.

It is extraordinary to suggest – as Mr Netanyahu did – that Mr Trump is the Jewish people’s greatest supporter. Asked directly about increased hate attacks since his victory and the belief his administration was speaking in racist and xenophobic tones, the president failed to denounce antisemitism, waffled about his electoral victory and promised “a lot of love, okay?”

Nor is Mr Trump a reliable friend of Israel. He does not steer a clear course. He has removed Mr Netanyahu’s best defence against the pressure from within his coalition that has moved him repeatedly rightwards. The Israeli prime minister has sought to maintain the status quo – albeit a status quo shifting on the ground, as mushrooming settlements erode the feasibility of a Palestinian state. He can no longer invoke US restraints. Besides, as Mr Kerry pointed out, friends tell hard truths.

The international community, seeing this coming, used December’s UN security council resolution and the subsequent Paris peace conference to put the two-state solution on a life-support machine. Mr Trump chose to ignore them. But the resolution has at least placed a marker in international law; and the case must be made again, and again. The UN and Arab League have warned that there is no just alternative. Europe must send out a clear message too. Angela Merkel’s cancellation of a summit with Mr Netanyahu – unofficially but widely stated to reflect her anger at the new law expropriating private Palestinian land – is a good example of how leaders can make themselves felt. The UK helped to broker the UN vote; yet, presumably in her unwise eagerness to ingratiate herself with the US president, Theresa May undermined Mr Kerry’s subsequent speech. It is all the more important that Britain pushes for the two-state solution without stinting.

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The Guardian / Feb. 16, 2017