Has Netanyahu really won?

Losing the cover of the two state solution could pose serious problems for Benyamin Netanyahu.

The election of Donald Trump was eagerly greeted by Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Coming after a rocky eight years in US-Israel relations under President Obama, their recent meeting in Washington DC was intended to signal a “reset” in relations between the two sides. For Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel and beyond, this also offered an occasion to move the US away from the two state solution and bury what was left of future prospects of Palestinian statehood. The Israeli prime minister may well have succeeded in this, but his victory brings with it new problems.

Israel-US relations have indeed gotten off to a good start. As anticipated, the US President indicated willingness to roll-back his country’s long-standing commitment to the two-state. With his almost casual remarks Trump seemed to have given Bibi enough political space to finally legitimise what Netanyahu wrote in his 1993 book “A Place Among Nations”, the book that was meant to launch him as Likud leader and eventually Prime Minister: Israel controlling the whole area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, while allowing the Palestinians some control over their major population centres and giving them “economic peace”.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s opposition to two states does not make him a one stater

But Prime Minister Netanyahu’s opposition to two states does not, however, make him a one stater. In fact, he has at times been quite open about his vision for solving the Palestinian conflict through the creation of Palestinian “state minus”. In many ways, this dream of his had already come true well before Trump’s election. As he wrote in 1993: the Palestinian territories are already an archipelago of semi-autonomous cities in a sea of Israeli security control. Later in his political career, Netanyahu explained that if the Palestinians wanted to call this archipelago of semi-autonomous cities a state, have their flag and sing their anthem, then so be it.

Bibi’s ability to realise his vision for the Palestinians was made possible thanks to the 1993 Oslo accords. These have underpinned most of his political career and created a system in which Israel has control over the West Bank but no responsibility for the well-being or even the stability of its Palestinian inhabitants. A mix of US and European money and security assistance provides for that, and in doing so, relieved Israel of the financial and military burden of controlling the Palestinian population, along with its responsibilities under international law as an occupying power.

But maintaining this reality has depended on the semblance of a diplomatic process to ensure a modicum of stability in the Palestinian territories and deflect international criticism over Israeli actions. This has also been vital in maintaining the illusion that Israel’s intends its control over the territories to be only temporary, despite evidence to the contrary. In many ways, the political space created by Trump’s shift on the Palestinian issue and his rupturing of the “Middle East Peace Process” myth might therefore become a problem for Netanyahu’s longstanding strategy of maintaining an ambiguity over the future of the Territories.

It is hard to see how Palestinian leaders would be willing to forgo sovereignty and basic freedoms that perpetual Israeli security control would entail as preconditions to enter peace talks. Such a vision would be at odds with Palestinian aspirations to fulfil their right to self-determination through an end to Israel’s occupation, and put the Palestinian Authority in an unsustainable position. Absent the prospect of statehood, Palestinians would find difficult to shake their image as the administrators of Israel’s occupation, something that would further aggravating their current crisis of domestic legitimacy at a time when President Abbas’ succession is feeding political and security instability.

For Israel’s relations with Arab partners, the waning of a viable independent Palestinian state poses further problems. The prospect of a two state solution has acted as important cover for Israel’s backdoor normalisation of relations with Arab states – some of which do not officially recognise it. Removing this possibility of future Palestinian sovereignty from the table would complicate this process and frustrate Israel’s ability to find common ground with regional partners on issues outside of its conflict with the Palestinians, particularly on containing Iranian regional influence. It would also be strongly resisted by neighbouring states, not least since they would be faced with the prospect of having to integrate or indefinitely segregate hundreds of thousands of Palestinians within their population, either of which would risk of further destabilisation.

Losing the cover of the two state solution could pose additional challenges for Israeli relations with the outside world, in particular Europe, whose policy of differentiating between Israel and the settlements would clash head on with a more openly annexationist Israel. Closer to home, a US shift away from the two state solution could empower political rivals on Bibi’s right flank calling for the formal annexation of Palestinian territory, and those on his left warning of the dangers of the emerging one state reality. It is an irony that many of these politicians started off their careers under Netanyahu.

Moreover, the demise of the two state solution leaves a vacuum that will increasingly be filled by advocates of a one state solution that encompasses both Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has long advocated granting Palestinians full rights within a Jewish state, although in practice the emphasis on “Jewish identity” would sit difficulty with what would be a majority Palestinian population. For their part, growing numbers of Palestinians are discussing equal rights within a binational state. President Trump’s apparent openness to a one state solution will lend further weight to these voices.

Trump could therefore have inadvertently done something past US presidents have struggled to do. In effectively, though not intentionally, calling Bibi’s bluff he has fed an Israeli debate on the alternatives to a two state solution and the potential consequences of Israel’s current trajectory in the occupied territories. In hindsight, Netanyahu may conclude that he could have done with a less accommodating US President, perhaps even reminding Trump of his famous remarks on the campaign trail: “Mr. President, we can’t take it anymore, we’re winning too much!”


This article was originally published by Al Jazeera.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.