JERUSALEM — A few hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by telephone with President Trump on Sunday, the Israeli leader huddled behind closed doors with his security cabinet.
Ministers on his hard right pressed Netanyahu to publicly proclaim the “two-state solution” dead.
The Israeli leader refused but told his raucous cabinet not to worry. Netanyahu said he did not support a full Palestinian state, but “a state-minus,” according to Israeli reports on the meeting.
In the days since, Israelis, Palestinians and American diplomats have been struggling to define what Netanyahu might have meant by “a state-minus.”
State-minus is clearly shorthand for how Netanyahu sees his bottom-line position to the decades-long conflict here, including the thorniest of thorny issues — who controls Jerusalem, with its shrines holy to three world religions.
But shorthand for what?
Was Netanyahu suggesting he could support something close to the sovereign state the Palestinians are seeking — and that previous U.S. administrations have tried hard to create?
Or was Netanyahu saying no way, he was not prepared to move much beyond what the Palestinians have today, limited self-rule, in 40 percent of the West Bank, under a 50-year-old military occupation?
What Netanyahu is thinking — or what he is willing to tell his people publicly or Washington privately — has never been more important.
Netanyahu is slated for his first meeting with the new American president at the White House next month.
The Israeli prime minister likes to boast that he best understands and can best manage the Americans.
But in his long service, Netanyahu has never encountered a president like Trump.
Trump has said he is keen to make the deal of the century — a historic White House-brokered Palestinian-Israeli peace that has eluded all before him. He appointed a trusted senior adviser, his 35-year-old son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to the task.
“If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can,” Trump said to Kushner at an event last week.
Yet Trump is also sending his bankruptcy lawyer, David M. Friedman, to be ambassador in Israel. Friedman has mocked the two-state solution.
In Israel, from left to right, politicians are pressing Netanyahu to say where he wants the country to go.
“Israel now has the opportunity — indeed, the obligation — to decide what kind of future it seeks,” said Tzipi Livni, a leader of the opposition in the Israeli parliament and a three-time peace negotiator.
On the hard right, Israel’s education minister and leader of a pro-settlement party, Naftali Bennett, has said Netanyahu should scuttle the false hope of two states and declare Israel’s true intentions — that it will never abandon the 400,000 Jews living in settlements in the West Bank and should instead annex 60 percent of the territory.
A former senior State Department official, Robert Danin, who served under Republicans and Democrats, wondered aloud what Netanyahu might say when Trump spreads out his arms in the Oval Office and asks, “Bibi, what do you want?”
Nobody knows — maybe not even Netanyahu.
“Until a week ago, we could not mention other solutions. The previous U.S. administration was committed to a two-state solution and no one could suggest anything else. This obstacle has now been removed,” said Giora Eiland, a retired general and former head of Israel’s National Security Council.
“We can say bad things about Donald Trump,” Eiland said. “But the good thing is that he is not committed to anything, especially the positions of the previous administration.”
For a generation, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has been very specific about what it wants: a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
This is what former president Barack Obama and his secretary of state John F. Kerry sought. In his final hours in office, Kerry gave a long-winded but impassioned speech, almost pleading in tone, warning that if the Israelis abandon the two-state solution, they will either lose their Jewish majority or democratic values.
It appears Netanyahu has other ideas.
Earlier this week, the prime minister announced plans to build 2,500 more homes in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He called this just a “taste” of things to come and promised more building in territories deemed occupied by most of the world.
The prime minister vowed that after years of squabbling with Obama and Kerry, “We are going to be doing many things differently from now on.”
The Washington Post asked a half-dozen experts, including some who had served as peace negotiators in the past, what Netanyahu meant by a “state-minus.”
They answered that it could mean almost anything.
It could signal support for a small nation close to what the Palestinians seek: a demilitarized state that surrenders some sovereignty to allow for Israeli security, especially in the Jordan Valley, with a slice of East Jerusalem — maybe a village on the other side of today’s separation barrier — as its capital.
Or, from the Palestinian perspective, it could mean something far worse: abandoning Gaza to Egypt and allowing a few isolated pockets of stunted but self-governing cantons, with a flag and a postage stamp and a seat at the United Nations.
Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, dismissed the state-minus as the Middle East version of the apartheid-era South African “Bantustans.”
Yoaz Hendel, who served Netanyahu as his director of communications and public diplomacy, said talking about “a state-minus” makes sense now because the two-state solution of the 1990s, of the Oslo Accords era, of Obama and Kerry, is over.
“No Israeli prime minister, left or right, will accept it today,” he said.
Hendel said he imagined the state-minus means that Israeli troops would remain in the Jordan Valley, which borders Jordan and is of vital interest, he said. Israel would also retain control of almost all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the army to protect them, and so the state of Palestine would be reduced to about 50 percent or less of the West Bank today.
“They would have status of a state at the United Nations, embassies, diplomats, a flag and a national anthem,” he said. He agreed that this is far less than the Palestinians would accept.
Yossi Beilin, former Israeli minister of justice and head of the Geneva Initiative, which supports a two-state solution, said Netanyahu has never laid out a clear vision.
“When Netanyahu is up against those who are more hawkish, he will say, ‘It will not happen on my watch.’ When he speaks with those who are more moderate, he says, ‘I am ready to talk to the Palestinians, and I am committed to idea of a two-state solution.’ ”
Parliamentarian Hilik Bar, who chairs a Knesset lobby for the promotion of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the idea of a Palestinian state-minus was “just another way for Netanyahu and his Likud party to maintain the defeatist attitude of simply managing the conflict.”
“There is no such thing as a state-minus,” he said. “At the end of the road there will either be a two-state solution or a one-state solution.”
Netanyahu’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told an international conference of security experts in Tel Aviv on Tuesday that Trump and the world should find another cause.
“I suggest, first of all, to the Europeans, the Americans and the Russians, not to touch the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Lieberman said. He called the international attention “mostly disruptive” and suggested, as he has in the past, that outsiders should mind their own business.