Barak Ravid’s new reporting—contained in his Hebrew-language book and English-language podcast—about how the failure of the Trump peace plan led to the Abraham Accords made this week feel like a time warp, with headlines dominated once again by former President Trump and former Prime Minister Netanyahu. Most of the attention was devoted to Trump’s foul-mouthed denunciation of Netanyahu for committing the unpardonable Trumpverse sin of disloyalty by congratulating Joe Biden on his election win, and while this isn’t unimportant as it will shape Israeli political behavior should Trump run again in 2024, it is mostly a sideshow. The more substantial revelations occupying the center ring have to do with the U.S.-Israel misunderstandings and disagreements over annexation and the purpose of the Trump plan. They illuminate a dynamic in U.S.-Israel relations that existed under Trump and continues to exist under Biden, which is a gap about how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved and a perhaps even more important gap about the implications of moving beyond a two-state paradigm.
Ravid’s account of the aftermath of the release of Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan in January 2020 confirms what everyone knew at the time, which is that there was disagreement within the administration about what would happen next. On one side was a camp led by Jared Kushner, who viewed the peace plan as an actual plan for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians intended to lead to a peace agreement, with some of the details subject to revision and adjustment depending on the way that theoretical peace talks would unfold. On the other side was a camp led by David Friedman, who reflected the views of Netanyahu and Ron Dermer that the peace plan was not a plan for negotiations but a façade intended to be the green light for Israel to proceed with unilateral annexation of 30% of the West Bank. Assuming that Ravid’s reporting is reflective of what actually happened, Trump was either in the first camp or surprised and then angry that he was not let in on the ruse ginned up by those in the second camp, and thus the annexation envisioned in the plan was put on hold.
The heart of this disagreement, however, was not actually about annexation. It was about whether a two-state outcome—something ostensibly envisioned by the Trump plan in theory despite not following up in practice—was still advisable, and if not, what American expectations are for Israeli action going forward. Within Netanyahu’s Likud circles and the Israeli right more widely, two states is as much a relic of the past as Israeli payphone asimon tokens. It is viewed as a non-starter and an impossibility, and thus the question becomes not how to get back to two states but what happens next. For Netanyahu, Dermer, and Friedman, the answer was annexation, and they seemed mystified that anyone would view the situation differently if their assumptions about being in a post-two-state period were correct.
For Kushner and perhaps Trump, their starting point was that two states was still a possibility. But once it became clear to them that Peace to Prosperity was dead on arrival and the Israeli government was moving full speed ahead with annexation anyway, the gap between the U.S. and Israel transformed from one about two states to one about how Israel proceeds if two states is indeed off the table. Kushner and his deputy Avi Berkowitz were, according to Ravid’s reporting, uncomfortable with Israel unilaterally swallowing up part of the West Bank even if there was no two-state deal to be had, and were desperately casting about for a way to prevent that despite their peace plan having gone nowhere. This is where the Emirati offer of normalization in return for a temporary annexation freeze presented itself as the solution, and thus the Abraham Accords were born.
Even in the Trump administration—the administration that gave more leeway to the Israeli government than any other in history—there was an expectation that does not exist on the Israeli right about what happens in the event of the alleged death of two states. For the Netanyahu government, a post-two-state world was license for a might-makes-right free-for-all. For Kushner and a more ambivalent Trump, a post-two-state world still contained minimum expectations for Israeli behavior, including not carrying out annexation without regard to what it would mean for the future of a Palestinian entity. Had the Abraham Accords not happened and Israel had proceeded apace, Ravid’s narrative suggests that this difference in expectations would have caused a real break between the U.S. and Israel with a range of future complications and consequences.
This same dynamic is playing out today between the U.S. and Israel under new leaders and involving a different issue, yet the fundamental premises remain the same. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in Israel this week meeting with a range of officials, including Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev. After Bar-Lev revealed in a tweet that among the topics that he and Nuland had spoken about was settler violence, he was met with an avalanche of criticism from his coalition partners and his Knesset opponents on all manner of grounds: denial that settlers commit violence, insistence that it’s no more than a few bad apples, whataboutism because Palestinians commit violence against settlers too, charges of bias and antisemitism for even using the phrase “settler violence” as it implies that there is something inherently violent about settlers and that all settlers perpetrate violence (something to bear in mind the next time you hear people on the right use the phrase “Palestinian terrorism”).
Rather than annexation, settler violence is the driver of this particular policy challenge, but what is really taking place is a larger question over the scope of Israel’s behavior if two states is no longer on the table. For much of the Israeli government, Israelis living in the West Bank should be subject to a completely different set of rules than Palestinians that go beyond the fact that the former are Israeli citizens and the latter are not. The assumption is that will be the case forever, irrespective of whether Israel formally annexes the territory or keeps the status quo in which Palestinians are consigned to permanent statelessness and political limbo. Settler violence, whether it is truly a crisis or completely overblown, is thus viewed as a response to Palestinians who refuse to accept their fundamental and unchangeable status, and the IDF should give settlers a wide berth since their actions belie the fact that they are not the problem.
But that is not the expectation of the U.S. If, as Bennett and others suggest, we are in a post-two-state world, settler violence becomes an even bigger problem as it will never be resolved through separation into two states. That the Israeli government does not seem invested in dealing with it, and that it is not only waved off but angrily dismissed despite IDF numbers demonstrating that it is on the significant rise, is a sign of an even more illiberal Israeli turn and a negation of Israel’s duty to protect people under its control to whom it never intends to grant citizenship or allow their own state. The American expectations for Israeli behavior in this environment are completely different from the expectations of right-wing Israeli governments and ministers.
Israeli leaders have largely moved beyond two states, while American leaders have not. This itself will lead to significant disagreements. But Israeli leaders have also not grasped the full implications of what it means to reject two states out of hand and how it impacts perceptions of Israeli policies and behavior across a range of issues. That was the case under Trump, it is the case under Biden, and it will remain the case under whoever is next elected president. For all of the focus on the differences between the two sides over how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will get resolved, more focus needs to be paid to the differences between the two sides over how Israel should act in the absence of a resolution.