Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump stated for the first time that he explicitly supports a two-state solution. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that most of the world will view with skepticism Trump’s resurrection of the two-state solution. His administration’s record on the Palestinian issue justifies a cautious assessment that his words are an empty gesture. The lack of international confidence in him will undoubtedly leave a trail of disbelief behind his statements. But his comments aren’t without significance., A closer look at the situation reveals that Trump’s words have ricocheted onto the Israeli political arena. If there is one thing that Trump succeeded in doing when declaring that he believes the two-state solution is what “works best,” it was to force Israel’s right-wing leaders to address an issue that they have been trying to avoid at all costs and in so doing, revealed their true colors.More than nine years have passed since Netanyahu declared from the Bar-Ilan University stage his vision of a “state minus:” “If we are given a guarantee of demilitarization and security arrangements required by Israel, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, we will be prepared to go forward with a future peace agreement for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state”. Even though this view of a Palestinian state doesn’t leave much room for negotiation, a two-state solution has always played a central role in the discussion. Since then, Netanyahu has done everything in his power to avoid another explicit endorsement of a Palestinian state. This nearly decade-long silence has always been part of a political strategy. Netanyahu’s position on a two-state solution remains ambiguous, the Israeli polity remains unsure of who the real Netanyahu is, and he remains prime minister.
Netanyahu’s true political skills have always been in exploiting demographics. In order to win a majority of mandates in the last election, or at least more mandates than the center left opposition (led by the Zionist Union), Netanyahu would have needed to win over a large chunk of the right-wing voters. But a new predicament was rising to Netanyahu’s right: Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s rebranding of the former national-religious party Mafdal into a more approachable and less outwardly religious party called the Jewish Home. Their efforts succeeded in recruiting voters who would normally vote for Likud. This demanded a new strategy from Netanyahu, one in which mentioning the notion of a two-state solution, no matter how minimalist, just wouldn’t do anymore; he needed to show that he too supports the settlers and is conscious of Jewish values. So Netanyahu changed course and the strategy worked. The Likud gained 12 mandates, stolen directly from the Jewish Home who suffered a sharp drop. Nonetheless, with only eight mandates Naftali Bennett’s party still succeeded in becoming part of Netanyahu’s small 61-member coalition. Being part of a small coalition offered the national-religious faction three major portfolios including justice, education, and agriculture ministries, thus granting them more power than they could ever have previously imagined. For Netanyahu a small coalition would give him more power: the government is effective in formulating and implementing policy since its members tend to be ideologically similar. Not including the role of prime minister, Netanyahu also holds two other major portfolios including the ministries of foreign affairs and health. In the past, he has also served as his own minister of the communications, regional cooperation, and economy. Agreeing to the religious parties’ demands for more money and a stricter policy towards issues such as Shabbat was a small price to pay for the amount of influence Netanyahu would gain. When it came to pleasing Bennett and his party members, a mere promise to never mention the word “state” together with the word “Palestinian” seemed to be sufficient enough for them to give him full cooperation. As a result, Israeli citizens are left with a government made up of one small nationalist party with disproportionate power and a West Bank annexation aenda, two ultra-religious parties that wouldn’t mind a conflict resolution either way as long as they receive their monthly budget, and three center-right parties whose representatives will do anything Netanyahu asks of them: one state, two states; whatever the prime minister says goes. Such a coalition succeeded in granting Netanyahu the power he aspired to but also legitimized a public discourse that is more accepting of a one-state solution. With Netanyahu staying silent, the pro-annexation group could push forward and become part of the mainstream political conversation. A solution that was once only marginal had moved to center stage. Moreover, the president of the United States seemed to be on board. Trump came into the U.S. presidency with motivation to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and proclaimed the necessity of thinking “outside the box.” In his first approach to the conflict, he expressed an ideological openness to a one-state solution, creating even more hope among the settler-right that Trump would grant them the license needed to annex the occupied territories, adding a new level of confidence in the national-religious faction’s belief that their way is what the people truly want. But even all the political creativity in the world wouldn’t lead to a different conclusion than the oldest in the book: there is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict except the two-state solution. After not-so-subtly dismissing two core issues, Jerusalem and the refugee question, Trump is willing to bring forward his so-called two-state peace plan. By doing this Trump has pushed Netanyahu into the corner, forcing him to understand that his days of status quo policy are over and leaving him no choice but to share his opinion on the matter. His opinion unsurprisingly hasn’t changed and is the same one he spoke of nine years ago on that Bar-Ilan University stage: two states, one demilitarized. Even if Trump’s plan doesn’t lead to a breakthrough, Trump’s words bring the political discourse back to the ground of reality and the only possible solution. Netanyahu is at the threshold of a rare opportunity: to join with the diplomatic initiative made by his American patron and to rid himself of the Bennet headache that has tormented him in his last two governments. Netanyahu can now present a two-state plan to the public under his conditions, with no left-wing party involved. The ultra-Orthodox parties will agree to most diplomatic initiatives as long as they don’t affect their budget; the three center-right parties will follow along because it’s what they believed in from the beginning and because Netanyahu said so, leaving Bennet the role of the ungrateful stick in the wheels who in his words will not stay part of a government that allows a “Palestinian state that is a disaster to Israel.” Netanyahu’s words can bring an end to sensationalized settler-right-wing enthusiasm of establishing a single state that on the one hand would have endangered Israel’s Jewishness and on the other hand threaten its democratic character. Netanyahu knew this all along and was evidently only waiting for the right time and the right amount of power to remind everyone. Hopefully this means that the time has come to return Bennett’s plan for annexation back to the margins where it belongs and bring the Jewish Home back to its days when it was none other than a fading extremist party. Maybe then, after this long decade of silence, the public will find out if Netanyahu has an actual political proposal. If he does, now would be the time to put in on the table.