For years now, the United States of America has had a very particular idea of how the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians was supposed to play out. The only difference between the positions of the presidents who occupied the White House over those years was how the parties would reach the resolution.
But what the resolution would ultimately be was clear. After the conflict, both peoples would live, side by side, in separate states. One people would live in Israel, and the other would call Palestine their home.
President Obama believed he could make this a reality by bringing the Arab states around through a demonstration of “daylight” between Israel and the United States. That strategy didn’t really work out too well; it ended with the daylight being present, but no Arab states coming around.
Previously, President Bush thought the way to get there was by way of a “road map” to peace — a series of benchmarks and accomplishments each side would meet that would ultimately lead to a robust and lasting peace agreement. This was just about as useful as the Obama method — although it did have the benefit of Israel remaining secure in the knowledge that America was still its ally.
Two very distinct approaches, one similar resolution. I don’t doubt that both presidents truly wanted to achieve peace in the region — if for no other reason than the selfish hope that then history would certainly never forget them. But they both failed, and quite miserably.
President Trump has blown into office much in the same way he campaigned. He is throwing convention to the wind and doing things differently. He doesn’t feel beholden to the approaches of those who occupied the office before him; precedent is about as meaningful to this leader as the opinions of his opponents.
So when he was asked at the joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whether he was backing away from the “two-state solution,” it shouldn’t have been a surprise to hear his answer.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”
Immediately the press went into a tizzy.
“Trump Abandons Commitment to 2-State Solution,” yelled the Huffington Post. Others apoplectically referred to the statement as a reversal of over 15 years of U.S. policy.
Which, it so happens to be, they are right about. But that’s no reason not to do it.
What Trump is doing here reminds me of when my son came home from yeshivah one day bearing a note from his Rebbi. “Yossi and Yankel had a disagreement today, but they worked it out,” the letter proclaimed. When I spoke to the Rebbi, he explained what it was all about.
“Too often, boys come to the Rebbi because of a dust-up they had with each other. They each complain that the other one is at fault — and frankly, as the Rebbi, I have no way of knowing who is right. So I tell them, ‘You’re in third grade now, and you’re big boys. Go outside for a few minutes, and work it out.’
“You know what? It is hard at first, but they end up being able to do it. As the year progresses, the boys begin coming up to me, unsolicited, and they tell me, ‘Rebbi, we had a disagreement, and we worked it out.’”
Of course, the conflict in the Middle East is slightly more complicated than a tiff a couple of 8-year-olds get into. But the underlying principle is the same.
You can’t tell people how to work out their problems. The truth is, as President Trump said, that “it is the parties themselves that must directly negotiate.” One of the reasons nobody has been able to actually solve the crisis in Israel is because there is a third party that keeps butting in. This party lacks the perspective of the Israelis, the point of view of the Palestinians, and — perhaps most importantly — the ability to know who has a legitimate claim at any given time.
So when parties walk into a room, there is a variation of the old joke — except that instead of there being two Jews and three opinions, there is a Jew, a Palestinian, and the world’s idea of how to solve the problem. That idea is usually distinct from both the Jew’s opinion and the Palestinian’s opinion.
In that way, President Trump’s approach is quite refreshing. “If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best,” he said. That applies to many issues. Whether it is the idea that the expansion of new settlement building is an absolute necessity — which mostly comes from the extreme right in Israel, but is almost certainly unhelpful to a peace agreement, or the moving of the American embassy to Yerushalayim, it shouldn’t be what we, as Americans, think the solution or correct approach ought to be. It is, after all — as it always is — the parties themselves who must directly negotiate.