The two leaders seemed to be operating in seamless unison. Though Netanyahu has served as prime minister for 11 years during two stints in office, this was his first visit to a White House occupied by a Republican president — and it paid off.
The right-wing Israeli leader secured what he needed from the trip: Tough rhetoric on the threat posed by Iran? Check. Vows of close friendship and articulations of hostility toward Obama-era policies? Check. Zero lip service to the importance of the two-state solution? You got it.
What Trump would say about the two-state solution — a vision of independent Israeli and Palestinian states existing side by side — hung over the proceedings. Neither he nor Netanyahu mentioned it once in their prepared remarks. And when it was raised by a reporter, Trump seemed to wave at it with casual indifference.
“I am looking at two states or one state, and I like the one that both parties like,” said Trump, figuratively kicking the battered can of Mideast peace down the road. He did note that “the two states look like it could be the easier of the two [options]," but that was the extent of his support for what has been an article of faith for successive Democratic and Republican administrations.
Trump also ever-so-gently chided Netanyahu on Israel's widely condemned expansion of settlements in the West Bank. “I'd like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” said the American president (the response, he noted, was none too optimistic) before the duo engaged in friendly banter about the “art of the deal.”
Netanyahu was being watched closely back home. He needed to appease far-right elements within his governing coalition. Naftali Bennett, leader of a party in Netanyahu's coalition that draws its core support from settlers, warned Netanyahu ahead of his trip to not “even mention a Palestinian state” — if he did, Bennett declared, “the earth will shake.”
Bennett was clearly pleased by what he saw: “This is the end of an era,” he tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. “The Palestinian flag has come down and has been replaced by the Israeli flag. The prime minister displayed leadership and daring and strengthened Israel’s security.”
Of course, the prospects for a two-state solution have been on life support for years. The continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the putative site of a future Palestinian capital, has made it a near certainty that there will never be a contiguous Palestinian state. Netanyahu's insistence on retaining control of security over much of this territory suggests a permanent military occupation. Many doubt he has any intention of letting an independent Palestinian state ever come to fruition.
Netanyahu claims his Palestinian counterparts are, as the Post's William Booth put it, “weak and rejectionist” and has said that he has “no partner for peace.” He believes an independent Palestine would be overrun by radical Islamist militias. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have taken their struggle to international forums, winning great symbolic support overseas but precious little leverage on the ground.
Not much will change after Netanyahu's meeting with Trump, as the Times of Israel's diplomatic correspondent noted:
But Netanyahu's critics, including figures from the Obama administration, worry that this status quo is toxic.
“The extreme right won tonight. The State of Israel has lost,” tweeted opposition Israeli parliamentarian Erel Margalit. “Netanyahu is leading us to a dual-nation state, while running from the two-state solution which is in Israel's interest.”
If there is to be no Palestinian state, the immediate question is when the millions of Palestinians living as second-class citizens — penned in by checkpoints, encroaching settlements and the patrols of the Israeli army — can expect the same rights as the Israelis in their midst. The Trump administration has shown no interest in answering that question. The word “occupation” was not uttered once in Wednesday's briefing.
“To those who think the current system today is acceptable, having one state with two systems — which is apartheid — I don’t think they can sustain it,” said Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian politician, to Booth. “Not in the 21st century.”
The White House, though, is pushing forward a new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who is a known supporter of settlements and once likened liberal American Jews to Nazi collaborators. Friedman faces tough Senate confirmation hearings on Thursday.
Netanyahu is also working to boost Trump's position. Last month, he issued a tweet cheering on Trump's plan to build a wall on the Mexican border — a clear favor to the White House that landed Israel in a gratuitous diplomatic spat with Mexico.
And at the Wednesday presser, he dodged an Israeli journalist's question about the worrying rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric during the election campaign, which gave voice to a group of once-fringe ultranationalists and neo-Nazis on the American right.
Trump completely ignored the comment and responded, instead, with a celebration of his election victory and a nod to his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose family has close ties to Netanyahu. Dan Shapiro, the recently departed American ambassador to Israel, was aghast.
But the Israeli prime minister let it slide. If Trump scratches his back, it seems, he'll return the favor.
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