Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House generated more buzz than policy direction. But there’s nearly as much to be gleaned from what he and U.S. President Donald Trump didn’t say as from what they did. Here are some takeaways.
Trump is eerily out of touch with antisemitism. Given the apparent spike in antisemitic incidents across the United States, including 60 bomb threats to Jewish community centres across North America in January alone, one reporter asked Trump what he planned to “say to those among the Jewish community in the States and in Israel, and maybe around the world, who believe and feel that your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones.” In response, Trump opened bizarrely with a reference to the number of Electoral College votes he received. Then he deployed the classic “some of my best friends are Jewish” evasion by mentioning his Jewish daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren. He concluded by saying, “you’re going to see a lot of love.” On the heels of omitting the mention of Jews from the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day – though his opening remarks mentioned “survival in the face of genocide” – this evasion continues the chill.
Does Trump know what a one-state solution means? Trump seemed to roll back the longstanding U.S. commitment to two states by saying, “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”
It’s not clear that Trump is aware of what he means by a “one-state” solution, particularly since people tend to use it very differently. The Israeli right-wing has, in recent years, spoken of a one-state solution involving various forms of West Bank annexation. In this scenario, it’s unlikely that Palestinians would be given full rights. However, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has recently called for annexing the West Bank and providing full voting rights to Palestinians. On the left, the one-state solution has certainly meant a single, democratic state. In that scenario, refugees would likely be given full rights of return and the culture and identities of both national peoples would be elevated. It’s unlikely that Israel would accept such a situation. But, given the extent of settlement entrenchment in the remaining territory, which would have been allocated for a Palestinian state under a two-state scenario, all of these ideas need to be explored.
As for settlements, Trump was more critical of Israeli settlements than one might have expected, given his settlement-supporting pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” he told Bibi.
A Jewish state is not what it seems. Bibi has done a masterful job over the last several years in pointing the world’s attention to the fact that the Palestinian Authority has not recognized Israel as a “Jewish state.” No less than five times in
Netanyahu’s remarks at the Washington press conference did he declare that Palestinians must recognize “the Jewish state.” At the same time, he hid the fact that the Palestinians have, in fact, recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security. On Sept. 10, 1993, the day before the Oslo Agreement was signed, Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat wrote to Israel’s then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin that the PLO “recognizes the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” Bibi need not look far for the texts of these letters of mutual recognition. They are on Israel’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
As for Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel specifically as a “Jewish” state, observers realize that this is code for denying Palestinian refugees the right of return. This is a contentious issue and will have to be part of the final status negotiations. In sum, it is not up to the Palestinians to recognize
Israel’s Jewish character; that is an internal matter. It’s up to the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s existence, entailing safety and security – and that, they already have done.
What’s the substance? Skilled orator that he is, Bibi stressed he wanted to deal with “substance,” not “labels,” uttering the word “substance” five times. By substance, he made clear he wanted the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” (see above) and wanted Israel to retain security control in the eastern part of the West Bank. Wouldn’t it be something if, by “substance,” Bibi meant that everyone in the areas currently under Israeli control is entitled to basic civil rights and human rights? Maybe that’s too substantive. One can dream, though.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications.