The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America is now implicitly endorsing a one-state solution

An Israeli settlement in Elkana, a city in the West Bank, on Tuesday. (Amir Levy/AFP/Getty Images)

One more timber of the United States’ bipartisan foreign policy collapsed this week when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed a 41-year State Department legal judgment that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank were “inconsistent with international law.”

Pompeo promoted this change in policy as a pragmatic acceptance of fact. “What we’ve done today is we have recognized the reality on the ground,” he said Monday. He argued that the United States could help solve the Palestinian problem by “taking away this impediment, this idea that somehow there was going to be a legal resolution.”

It’s hard to quarrel with Pompeo’s judgment that previous U.S. policy “didn’t work.” Israeli settlements are now so numerous that it is unlikely any Israeli government (or any outside power) could remove them by force. And it is also true that the inexorable advance of settlements, despite decades of U.S. and international protest, makes a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem much more difficult.

But realpolitik comes with a cost, and not just in abandonment of legal or moral principles. With this decision, the Palestinians are newly ratified as one of modern history’s biggest losers. And why? It’s in part because they relied on U.S. promises to reverse Israel’s acquisition of land by force after the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. Nine successive administrations gave that same assurance, and it is now shown to have been hollow.

This story has a harsh lesson: History is written by the victors. Sometimes, lost causes really are lost. Woe to the defeated. The Palestinians can testify to that, as can, nearer to home, Native Americans.

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The United States was never entirely credible as a mediator in this conflict, given its close relationship with Israel. But until Donald Trump, every recent U.S. president sought to broker negotiations for a Palestinian state. That era now seems to have passed. Trump has sided with the victors on key issues about the status of the West Bank, Golan Heights and Jerusalem.

Pompeo spoke cheerily on Monday of finding “a political solution for this very, very vexing problem.” But there is no evidence that Palestinians are prepared to ratify their defeat with a peace agreement that formally abandons the aspiration for meaningful statehood.

As a journalist, I’ve been watching the story wind toward this dead end for 40 years. Over that time, I spent a week living in a Palestinian village in the West Bank, tracked the global diaspora of refugees from another Palestinian village, and talked to Palestinian terrorists, intelligence chiefs and, in more recent years, passionate but often hapless politicians. I met Palestinian farmers who disguised a national flag as an embroidered cover for a box of tissues and hid a map of Palestine behind a picture frame.

I’ve also watched a generation of Palestinian leaders botch their chances at statehood — demanding the perfect deal rather than accepting the good deal that was achievable.

These Palestinian leaders preferred to keep their dignity rather than compromise. They must have believed that, in the end, the Israelis would get tired and give in to their demands. It hasn’t worked out that way. Back when I started covering the Middle East, both sides thought they could have it all. Only the Israelis succeeded in that maximalist hope.

Over these decades, I’ve interviewed every Israeli prime minister since Menachem Begin and developed a strong affection for that country. I’ve heard so many Israelis express the yearning for peace, and a disdain for the settlers who blocked progress, that I suspect there’s a deep sadness among many Israelis this week about Pompeo’s decision to abandon previous U.S. policy and reward the most intransigent of their fellow Israeli citizens.

But regret and nostalgia don’t make for good policy, any more than does raw realpolitik. People who want a just resolution of the Palestinian issue must look reality in the eye. And what we plainly see is that as long as Trump’s policies prevail, a two-state solution is off the table, by American fiat.

Pompeo doesn’t seem to realize it, but the United States is now implicitly endorsing a one-state solution — forcing Israel to make an agonizing decision about whether to deny full rights to the Arab residents of that state. Perhaps Israelis will rebel against making this choice and revive the possibility of a Palestinian state. Or perhaps Arabs, exhausted by this conflict, will induce Palestinians to accept defeat . . . and something less than statehood.

As with the other pillars of the old international order that Trump is dismantling, I suspect the United States will miss the role of peacemaker more than it may imagine. Reality on the ground can get ugly.

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Read more:

Robert Kagan: Israel and the decline of the liberal order

Daniel Pipes: How Trump put Netanyahu in an untenable position

Mohammad Shtayyeh: Palestinians want freedom, not Trump administration bribes

Megan McArdle: ‘Deal of the century’ aside, what is the Israeli-Palestinian end game?