President Trump’s visit to Israel and the West Bank this week was full of optimism over the prospects for peace. In his public remarks with Prime Minister Netanyahu and in his speech at the Israel Museum, Trump went out of his way to emphasize his own desire to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the eagerness of Saudi Arabia to assist the parties in getting there, and Netanyahu’s and President Abbas’s own readiness for a peace deal. Yet for all his talk about overseeing the ultimate deal, there has been a curious gap in Trump’s public rhetoric. Not once since becoming president, including and most glaringly during his joint press conferences with Netanyahu and Abbas during their White House visits, has Trump uttered any variant of the phrase “two-state solution,” leading to questions about his vision for what a deal would look like. It should not be controversial to endorse a position that has been adopted by the American, Israeli, and Palestinian governments, yet Trump seems to be going out of his way to purposely not do so. For some this is encouraging, for others it is alarming, but the more important question is not why Trump is doing it, but whether it actually matters.
Nobody can say definitively why Trump won’t use the term two-state solution when talking about his desire to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It may be that his vision for Palestinians is more limited and hews closer to the Israeli right’s vision of Palestinian autonomy or self-determination short of statehood. The jubilation within Habayit Hayehudi and Likud at his election was premised on this assumption, and some within the rightwing camp maintain their belief that Trump’s refusal to endorse two states is a coded endorsement of their own views. Following his speech on Tuesday, an unnamed Israeli official said that the Palestinians had been set back one hundred years as a result of Trump’s speech and that the president’s omission of two states is a deliberate message.
On the other hand, Trump may be craftier than opponents of two states would like to believe. By not creating a clash early on over the two-state issue, Trump has been able to engage Israel, the Palestinians, and the pragmatic Sunni states while managing not to elicit angry denunciations or refusals to negotiate from anyone. Every side gets to read into Trump’s cryptic words anything they want, since the president has said little of substance or offered any details beyond platitudes about peace and making an historic deal. In dealing with two sides that have historically negotiated over the parameters and ground rules of the negotiations themselves, keeping things vague and open-ended may be the smartest and only reasonable way to approach this process. In this reading, Trump is not signaling anything at all by refusing to mention two states, but is employing a tactic designed to get the two sides talking without having the White House get stuck in the bog from the outset.
We will at some point find out which of these two possibilities is the correct one. But until we do, supporters of two states should not be rattled by Trump’s verbal gymnastics. What Trump says matters far less than what Trump does, and despite his insistence on portraying the contours of a possible deal as more open-ended than American foreign policy has previously allowed, Trump’s actions on Israeli and Palestinian issues so far only point in the direction of two states.
If he was not aware of this fact before entering the White House, by now – following repeated conversations with the Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis, and others – Trump surely knows that any deal that will be supported by any of these actors necessarily involves two states. The fantastical delusions of two state opponents on the right that the Palestinians will soon come to accept the inevitability of perpetual Israeli control of the West Bank and settle for limited autonomy is as realistic as the hallucinatory fairytale that Jordan will substitute for a Palestinian state. None of the Arab parties are willing to participate in a process whose endpoint is anything but Palestinian statehood, and the fact that they are publicly cooperating with Trump on restarting negotiations is the clearest available sign that the sucker at this poker table is not the Palestinians but Israeli supporters of annexation. Trump has spent more time courting the Arab states and extolling their willingness to make peace with Israel than he has in courting Israel itself, and whatever else the Sunni states may be, they are not going to be used as props. They understand what any “ultimate deal” must involve, even if members of the Israeli government do not.
Furthermore, Trump’s dealings with Israel on its own terms have all been carefully calibrated so as not to make a Palestinian state untenable or destroy the boundaries of what Palestinians will reasonably accept. If Trump had decided to throw two states out the window, then moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or recognizing a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – both moves that Israeli rightwing media outlets and commentators predicted were going to happen this week while Trump was in the country – would not be problematic from his perspective as they would not impact any potential agreement. The only reason that sudden moves on Jerusalem matter is because they prejudice the final outcome of negotiations over the capital of a future Palestinian state. Similarly, Trump’s repeated public comments about settlements being problematic and the disagreements between his negotiators and the Israeli negotiating team over what the U.S. deems to be acceptable settlement construction only make sense in the context of a drive toward a two-state solution. If the final outcome is a more robust version of the type of Palestinian autonomy laid out in the Oslo Accords, then confining building to previously built-up areas inside the blocs is a fight that is not worth picking since it is meaningless outside of an agreement on borders.
I fully expect to hear Trump at some point begin talking about two states, but saying the words “two-state solution” will not invoke some kind of magic that conjures it into being any more than not saying the phrase will doom its prospects. Given a choice between someone who works toward getting there without explicitly admitting that he is doing so versus someone who endorses it in a speech with a host of qualifiers and then spends the next decade making excuses for why it cannot happen, I choose the former. Words do indeed matter but deeds matter more, and despite his rhetorical evasions, Trump’s actions so far speak volumes about his views on two states.