Diplomats are trained in decorum. They call a bitter argument a “frank and cordial exchange of views.” They don't laugh out loud at national leaders addressing the UN General Assembly.
Or at least they didn't until Tuesday. Because there's a point when honesty overcomes the most practiced professional self-control, and that point came when Donald Trump claimed that his administration has “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” The polite diplomats laughed in unison. Who could blame them?
I have a harder time understanding reporters who didn't respond in the same way the next day, when Trump spoke before his meeting at the United Nations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump said that he would publicize his plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace “over the next two to three to four months,” and that he now supports a two-state solution. With due respect for the reporter's pose of being a disinterested observer, a fly on the wall, this time all the flies on the wall should have guffawed.
Early in his term, you may recall, Trump broke with previous U.S. preference for a two-state outcome. “I am looking at two-state, and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said. So it's supposedly significant that he now said,
I like two-state solution. Yeah. That’s—that what I think—that’s what I think works best. I don’t even have to speak to anybody, that’s my feeling.
Compare the two comments, and what comes out most clearly is that Trump has no more clue today than he did last year about what “two-state” means. He sounds like, say, a high-schooler who forgot to do the reading, when he's asked by the teacher to analyze the Emancipation Proclamation. “I like Proclamation. Yeah. That's what I think.”
As for the peace plan, perhaps he really will release it by the end of January, four months from now. Trump and his team have promised The Plan any month now for many months. Maybe the Great Pumpkin will land on Halloween. You never know.
But let's play along and think about what signals Trump has given of how he'd deal with Israeli-Palestinian peace.
To start, we know how he makes judgments: ad hominem. Flatterers buy his affection, critics enrage him, and he does not distinguish between an idea and the person presenting it. Netanyahu fawns over Trump. Palestinians, from President Mahmud Abbas down, do not. This will largely determine which proposals make it into the (alleged) plan.
Now let's look at the core issues. Netanyahu, asked about Trump's new affection for Palestinian statehood, said he was “prepared for the Palestinians to have the authorities [sic] to govern themselves without the authority to hurt us.” As he has explained before, this means that Israel would maintain security control in all the territory west of the Jordan River, including the West Bank.
Don't confuse this with the concept of a demilitarized state, to which Palestinians might agree. Netanyahu is talking about the Israeli military and security services being present in or having free access to supposedly independent Palestine. He has sometimes called this a “Palestinian state minus.” A better term would be “protectorate.” It would bear a resemblance to Egypt in the 1920s—officially independent, except that British troops were still present, Egyptian soldiers were issued only three bullets each, and British officials had remote control over the Egyptian police.
Netanyahu has predicted that Trump will accept his concept. Odds are that he's right—again, if there's ever a plan. The odds are very poor that any Palestinian leader would sign on it. Even if one did, a Palestinian “independence” of this sort would not be the end of the occupation. It would be the prelude for the next stage of the conflict.
A short list of the most crucial other elements that a peace plan must address are Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and Palestinian refugees. Trump has shown his views on all of them.
Jerusalem, he regularly insists, is “off the table,” because he recognized he city as Israel's capital and move the U.S. embassy to it. In theory, the border of the Israeli city could be negotiated. In practice, Trump has moved the starting line for negotiations from the pre-1967 line to the post-1967 boundary of the city as unilaterally imposed by Israel—while saying that there need be no negotiations, since he has already settled the issue by diktat.
Trump made his acquiescence in settlement expansion obvious even before he took office, when he chose settlement advocate David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel. According to Peace Now's settlement monitoring team, expansion has accelerated since Trump took office—first more plans were approved, and now more buildings are going up. If there ever is a Trump peace plan, expect it to leave all, or virtually all, settlements in place under Israeli rule. The Palestinian state would be a set of disconnected cantons—which has been Netanyahu's plan for many years.
One bit of the Trump Plan that has leaked: Trump's son-in-law and Mideast adviser Jared Kushner reportedly wants all Palestinian refugees resettled permanently in the countries where they now reside. He proposes solving the problem of the right of return by declaring that it, too, is already off the table.
Besides the tangible issues, there's one more critical element in peace negotiations: building trust between two sides that have been in conflict, and between them and the intermediary. Trump is deaf to this. His recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital didn't eliminate the issue. It did convince Abbas that sitting at any table with Trump is pointless. Trump's reaction has been to find every way he can to punish the Palestinians—from expelling the Palestinian envoy in Washington to stopping U.S. funding for Palestinian hospitals.
At his particularly bizarre press conference on Wednesday, Trump described negotiating a two-state agreement as “a real-estate deal.” Maybe shouting at a potential buyer works in New York real-estate deals, or telling him the price will keep going up if he waits. Maybe these techniques cost Trump deals, but he has never noticed. In any case, Israeli-Palestinian peace is much more complicated than selling a building in Manhattan.
Trump's “I like two state” remark temporarily dominated the news cycle in Israel. Some commentators thought he had put pressure on Netanyahu and might just have resuscitate peace prospects.
Nonsense. A two-state agreement is the least worst way out of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict regardless of whether Trump feels that way today or not. The idea that he's capable of bringing this outcome about is worth a laugh—if only to avoid weeping.