President Donald Trump is taking a twin-track approach on one of his thorniest foreign policy issues, seesawing on his position on long-term peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
When asked at a press conference this week during the UN General Assembly about what sort of peace deal he wants, a one-state or two-state deal where both Palestinians and Israelis have their own separate states, he equivocated.
“You know what? If they do a single, if they do a double, I’m OK with it if they’re both happy. If they’re both happy, I’m OK with either. I think the two-state is more likely.”
He has said words to this effect before, yet hours earlier he said he preferred the two-state solution.
“I like two-state solution. I like two-state solution,” Trump said. “That’s what I think works best. I don’t even have to speak to anybody, that’s my feeling.”
It’s not an insignificant flip-flop, given that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN this week the two-state solution in the common understanding – a completely independent Palestinian state – is most definitely not on his radar.
“What I’d like to see is that the Palestinians will have all the powers to govern themselves, but none of the powers to threaten us,” Netanyahu said.
Trump’s “single or double” analogy creates the impression a deal is as simple as walking into a bar and ordering up whatever you fancy on the spur of the moment. It is anything but.
For the past few decades US presidents have been trying to coax, cajole and sometimes corner both sides into compromise with little lasting success.
Trump’s tactic in this, as in much else, has been different. He did what many presidents thought about but never acted on: late last year he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv, much to the delight of most Israelis.
The world waited for his next step, expecting him to leverage that move and kick-start talks.
Early this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he laid out that next step: threatening financial incentives for Palestinians if they did not engage in peace talks.
“We give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands, that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said at a press conference.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has turned his back on Trump’s tactic, and refused to engage publicly with senior US officials.
Trump, as he often does, followed through on his word, taking money – in the form of US aid funding and contributions to the UN organization responsible for Palestinian refugees – off the table.
Back when he was newly elected, Trump had sounded confident he could break the impasse, but absent a new initiative it appears his transactional approach has stalled, although this week he said he hoped to put a new peace plan forward in the next two to four months.
Now at an apparent impasse, Abbas has decided to take Trump, or at least the United States, to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
A lawsuit filed Friday contends “[t]he relocation of the United States Embassy in Israel to … Jerusalem constitutes a breach of the Vienna Convention.”
The Convention says that embassies must be located on the territory of the host state.
Palestinians are expected to argue that Jerusalem’s status has never been fully resolved by the international community since the United Nations decided in 1947 the city should stand apart from neighboring states: a corpus separatum, or ‘separate body.’
If the ICJ decides this argument carries weight, then it could decide that no country should be locating its Israel embassy in Jerusalem.
While the case could bring to light some interesting legal debate, it would be a surprise if it had any immediate impact on the facts on the ground.
Abbas’ longer-term tactic will likely be to outlast Trump, and hope for something better at the White House in 2020.
In the meantime, he can fall back on an old Palestinian standard of rallying international sympathy and support, and try to drive a wedge between the US and other countries, which under a Trump presidency may get easier.
Leader after leader at the UNGA, including Trump’s allies like President Emmanuel Macron of France and Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, made oblique and direct criticism of Trump’s isolationism.
Abbas’ challenge is to leverage that divide into a deal both Palestinians and Israelis can live with.