Trump-Netanyahu Meeting Shatters ‘Palestine First’ Worldview
JNS.org – The morning after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first official meeting with President Donald Trump, multiple headlines proclaimed that the two-state solution — whereby an independent, sovereign Palestinian state would be created alongside the state of Israel within agreed upon and final borders — was, if not quite dead, fast approaching death’s door.
I want to suggest that those who subscribe to this view should dig a little deeper. What’s really being overturned is what we might call the “Palestine First” strategy of regional peacemaking. But that doesn’t have to mean that a solution involving Palestinian sovereignty has been extinguished.
The idea of “Palestine First” traces its origins to the mid-1960s, just before the Six-Day War, when Yasser Arafat and his comrades in the Fatah movement took over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Until that point, the PLO had been an instrument of the Arab League. By asserting Palestinian independence from Arab collective decision-making, Arafat set the stage for a violent struggle against Israel in the name of Palestinian “return,” and full sovereignty from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
It took thousands of deaths and several bitter wars for Arafat to realize that his armed struggle was doomed to failure. In 1990, the “Palestine First” strategy took a heavy blow when Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime invaded Kuwait, because an intra-Arab dispute suddenly toppled the Palestinian issue in the hierarchy of Arab priorities.
Following the First Gulf War, Israel’s representatives met face to face with the Arab states and the PLO in Madrid, launching a lengthy, inconclusive peace process.
But the “Palestine First” strategy was resurrected when the Norwegian government opened a secret channel between the Israelis and the PLO, resulting in the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement — a follow-up treaty to the 1993 Oslo Accords — which created the Palestinian Authority (PA) and was designed to set the Palestinians on the road to full statehood. More than 20 years and one brutal civil war later, the Palestinians are still ruled by a divided leadership, and have no unified state.
That period includes, of course, the eight years that President Barack Obama was in office. In marked contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama elevated the Palestinian issue to the center of Middle East politics. Obama further antagonized Israel by legitimizing Iran, which explicitly seeks the elimination of the Jewish State. But neither Obama, nor his Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, could deliver on Palestinian statehood, and the Palestinian leadership embarked on an international campaign to seek unilateral recognition of their independence.
That embittered and failed strategy, which saw Palestinian representatives verbally assaulting the historical and religious connections of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the land of Israel, served only to deepen Israeli fears of Palestinian eliminationism. This fear is only deepened by the rabid incitement and hatred found in Palestinian school textbooks, on Palestinian TV and across the internet.
This is the environment that Trump walked into when he became president. Were Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton in the White House, I’d wager that they would all conclude — as Trump has — that the “Palestine First” playbook should be tossed aside.
“Palestine First” never meant simply that the Palestinians should rank at the top of the Middle East’s myriad national and religious struggles. It also described the view that the lack of a Palestinian state, and the unfulfilled demand for the “return” of all the Arab refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants, lay at the heart of the region’s ills. It is that assumption that was so dramatically exploded by the meeting between Trump and Netanyahu.
The Middle East has gone through several extraordinary transformations in the last 20 years, whose cumulative effect has been to question whether the the region as we know it can even survive. Nobody can seriously make the argument that creating a Palestinian state in this context would be a boon for peace. Nobody (except, perhaps, a racist) could argue that the Palestinian birthrate poses a greater threat to Israel’s existence than does Iran and Hezbollah. Nobody can make the moral or strategic case that resolving the question of Palestinian independence is of greater import than, say, that of Kurdish independence, or the profound lack of religious freedom in the region, or the crying need to generate economic and educational opportunities for the youth of the Arab world.
The regional approach to peacemaking outlined by Trump and Netanyahu, grounded in a partnership between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, is foremost a recognition that there are grave problems that run across the borders created in the aftermath of World War I. If Israel is to achieve peace with the Palestinians, and if the Palestinians are to finally turn their ‘Authority’ into something resembling a functional, accountable state, then those Arab states that are yet to make their own peace with Israel have to lead the way. Doing so will finally unravel the illusion that, just by existing, Israel is the source of the region’s problems. Should that moment arrive, I hope that everyone — Arabs and Jews alike — will find it liberating.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism”(Edition Critic, 2014).