US President lands in minefield with 'one-state' remark

Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinians clashing in the east of Nablus in the West Bank earlier this month.
Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinians clashing in the east of Nablus in the West Bank earlier this month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • As he stood on the podium next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump said he was open to new ideas that would bring peace to the Middle East.

That opened the door to a whole new maze of complexity and risk. By uttering the phrase "one-state" - rather than a two-state solution to the conflict, the bedrock of diplomacy for two decades - he went where past presidents and most leaders feared to tread, knowing the loaded implications.

The creation of a binational or single state that encompasses both Israel and Palestinian territories is not a viable option for most Israelis and Palestinians, for religious, political and demographic reasons.

"So I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one both parties like," Mr Trump said with an almost offhand air, emphasising his main aim was "to see a deal".

"I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one."

But the two parties might find a one-state solution just as hard to live with as two states side by side, depending on how it is defined and the ideals that underpin it.

The idea of one state is riddled with questions of identity, ethnicity, religion and democracy that cut to the essence of the conflict.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat suggested the main risk was that Israel would end up with the upper hand, creating one state with two separate systems - one for Jews and one for Arabs.

With efforts to forge a two-state solution having gone largely nowhere in the past 20 years, it is natural for leaders and diplomats to start examining other possibilities.

One state could seem a simpler solution. But at the heart of Israel's identity, from before its creation nearly 70 years ago, is the idea that it is a nation for the Jewish people.

One of Mr Netanyahu's core demands is that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state. An estimated 16 million people live in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, nearly half the population is Muslim or Christian, and the Palestinian birth rate is rising more rapidly than the Israeli one.

Beyond the many profound issues of identity lie simple-sounding but thorny questions: What would the state be called? Could it be secular and Jewish? Would Muslims from other states be free to visit? Which legal system would apply? Would Arab or Muslim nations recognise the new entity?

To many settlers on Israel's right, one state could mean Israeli sovereignty over the entire West Bank. To some on the left in Europe and the US, it could be a euphemism for a binational state with no Israel, said Mr David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute. "Whoever uses this term needs to be very careful in how it is used as it means opposite approaches," he said.

In a survey of 2,400 respondents on Thursday by the Tami Steinmetz Centre at Tel Aviv University and the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, 55 per cent of Israelis and 44 per cent of Palestinians favoured a two-state solution. Support was far less for a one-state outcome.

Perhaps that is one reason Mr Netanyahu was careful not to reference a one-state solution at the news conference.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'US President lands in minefield with 'one-state' remark'. Print Edition | Subscribe