Yesterday, President Donald Trump made a fairly straightforward statement about the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was promptly inflated into a geopolitical earthquake by much of the media. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians-if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
As I noted at the time, this formulation did little to alter American support for the two-state solution in practice, since both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not “like” the one-state solution:
[D]ecades of polling shows that while Israelis and Palestinians narrowly support a two-state outcome, they are decidedly opposed to a one-state endgame, which many see as a recipe for strife and civil war. Most recently, a joint 2016 survey by Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and the Israel Democracy Institute, found that 68% of Palestinians oppose the one-state solution, as do 64% of Israelis.
Thus, given Trump’s own qualifications, his words functionally did nothing to change traditional U.S. support for the two-state solution as the preferred solution of both parties. As Ilan Goldenberg, a former Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator under John Kerry, put it, “One state is being overhyped in this instance as long as Trump keeps talking about what works for both parties.” But you wouldn’t know this from reading some of the breathless reports that followed Trump’s initial statement on Wednesday.
“Trump, Meeting With Netanyahu, Backs Away From Palestinian State,” read the New York Times headline. “President Trump jettisoned two decades of diplomatic orthodoxy on Wednesday by declaring that the United States would no longer insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians,” the piece reported. “Donald Trump says US not committed to two-state Israel-Palestine solution,” declared The Guardian headline. “Donald Trump has dropped a two-decades old US commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a permanent Middle East peace agreement,” the story read. Many other outlets ran similar articles.
As noted, this was not actually the implication of what Trump had said. Accordingly, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley quickly affirmed today that “we absolutely support the two-state solution.” Likewise, in his congressional confirmation hearing this afternoon, even David Friedman, Trump’s hard-right pick for ambassador to Israel, touted the two-state solution as the “gold standard” and ideal outcome for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and said that he could not envision a better solution at this time.
Awkwardly, media outlets were put in the position of reporting that the dramatic change in U.S. policy that they’d trumpeted had not actually transpired, though some tried to pin the confusion on Trump rather than their own poor parsing of his words. Meanwhile, the Middle East editor of Foreign Policy magazine pointed out that none of this should have surprised:
How did so many media outlets get something so fundamental wrong?
Part of it has to do with some reporters’ unfamiliarity with Trump’s traditional rhetorical evasions. Throughout the presidential campaign, when asked about particular policy options, Trump would refuse to rule anything out. “I don’t want to rule out anything,” he famously said when asked if he’d use nuclear weapons against ISIS. Often, this was Trump’s way of worming out of a question he didn’t know enough to answer. But it did not reflect a serious and substantive stance—and neither did his refusal to rule out a one-state solution.
But there is another factor that led the reporters to jump the gun in eulogizing U.S. support for two states: a commitment to a narrative about Trump and Israel that has not actually materialized. Trump’s election was assumed by many to herald a new doggedly pro-Israel American administration that would march in lockstep with the Jewish state’s Likud government, or even to its right. Trump, who initially declared himself “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, worked hard to foster this pro-Israel perception once he realized it would help his political prospects with Republican voters like evangelicals. But he never actually evinced any serious knowledge or convictions about the subject, and as a result, had to take the unusual step of reading a pre-scripted AIPAC address off a teleprompter. (When speaking off the cuff, by contrast, Trump tended to say less congenial things, like suggesting Israel should have to pay back U.S. defense aid.) The questionable casting of Trump as a far-right pro-Israel partisan was also boosted by a group of fringe activists to AIPAC’s right who coalesced around Trump and loudly declared victory over the bipartisan two-state consensus when he won.
But whatever the merits of this narrative during the campaign, it has been decidedly disproven by Trump’s own actions since his inauguration. Rather than green-lighting Israeli settlement activity and tearing up the Iran deal, Trump has repeatedly called for restraint. He has backpedaled on his promise to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. He even went so far as to tell his donor Sheldon Adelson’s own Israeli newspaper that “I am not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace.” He repeated this point to Netanyahu’s face at their joint press conference, and asserted that “the Israelis are going to have to show some flexibility… they’re going to have to show the fact that they really want to make a deal.”
Simply put, rather than aping Naftali Bennett, leader of Israel’s settler party, Trump has instead largely returned to the rhetoric and policies of George W. Bush, whose administration backed a two-state solution and opposed new settlement construction, but not building within existing ones. Even David Friedman, the most hawkish Israel advocate in Trump’s orbit, was compelled to tell Congress today that he “agree[d] with the president” that expanding settlements is not helpful for peace, and repeatedly said he would oppose Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
The press, however, has been primed for a major Trump shift on Israel policy since day one, and has been interpreting events through that distorting lens. Searching for a dramatic sea change that simply has not arrived, reporters latched onto Trump’s largely anodyne comments about two states as confirmation, only to have their preconceived notion quickly dashed on the rocks of reality.
Of course, Trump may well decide to withdraw U.S. support for the two-state solution at some point in the future. But there is no evidence that he has done so. The histrionic hubbub surrounding his recent comments, then, should serve as a cautionary tale for media outlets about the power of narrative assumptions to overtake the actual facts. And it offers a wake-up call to all observers that a new paradigm is sorely needed to characterize this president’s Israel/Palestine policy.