President Trump backed away from Israeli-Palestinian peace with a weaseling but clever non-answer in his press conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: “Looking at two-state or one-state, I like the one that both parties like.” Meaning: We will not get much involved. You guys do whatever you want. Unstated but likely outcome: one and a half states.

Trump may have been trying to sound wise here: If peace ain’t gonna happen, walk away. God, I wish we could. Americans have promoted Israel-Palestine peace for decades with little result. Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan came when they wanted them, but the underlying problem remains: Both Israelis and Palestinians want the same Massachusetts-sized Palestine. Neither are ready for major compromise. 

The Netanyahu cabinet loves Trump’s unqualified support that takes pressure off of trying to reach a negotiated settlement. It tells Jerusalem they can postpone it indefinitely. But they might ponder Gibbon’s comments on what occupation of conquered provinces did to the Roman Empire: pushed it into decline.

The State Department — if we still have a State Department — could promote peace eternally. Secretary Kerry spent a year and worked himself into exhaustion over a nonexistent “peace process.” Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and point man on Israel-Palestine, should be warned against that trap. Publicly we must always work for peace, but curb your enthusiasm and expectations.

The least-bad solution would have been to let Jordan keep the West Bank, although most Palestinians disliked rule by a foreign king. Jordan seized the West Bank as Britain withdrew in 1948 and annexed it in 1950. Jordan had no legal claim to the West Bank; it was supposed to go to an Arab entity in Palestine alongside the Jewish state envisioned in the 1947 UN partition plan — the original two-state solution. In 1988, King Hussein renounced all Jordanian claims to the West Bank in favor of a future Palestinian state. That ended one of the few chances for peaceful resolution. 

Hussein, hitherto a bystander, had reluctantly supported Egypt and Syria in the 1967 war and fired artillery into Israel. In response, Israeli forces quickly seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Cool Israeli heads urged making some border adjustments and giving the bulk of the West Bank back to Jordan. They argued that keeping it meant either Israel would soon not be Jewish or not be democratic. Hotter heads prevailed. Jewish settlement began and reunited Jerusalem was declared Israel’s eternal capital. 


The 1993 Oslo conference called for two states, and the U.S. endorsed it. Israel reluctantly went along, but a series of negotiations got nowhere, and in 2000 the window of opportunity closed amid an angry Palestinian intifada. Washington still pushed the two-state solution, although privately many gave it little chance.

And a one-state solution was tried under the British mandate but erupted in civil war 1936-39, the first Arab-Israeli war. Israelis do not consent to being ruled by Palestinians and vice-versa. In a single state, the old civil war would simply resume, which, some say, is already under way.

With Trump washing his hands of responsibility, what is the likely outcome? Israel will expand settlements, something most Israelis approve of. Will Israel occupy the entire West Bank and encourage Palestinians to self-deport? Some Israelis pursue that, but few proclaim it openly. Even President Trump has cautioned Israel against settlement-building. Eventually, only Palestinian enclaves will remain, not enough for a viable state. Then the map could resemble what former President Carter called “apartheid,” although the South Africa analogy is strained.

Apartheid (literally, “apartness”) started with the Afrikaner Nationalists’ election in 1948. In 1959 Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd began setting up ten fake little republics on 13 percent of South Africa’s territory, one for each tribe, so they could enjoy “separate development.” South Africa’s black majority would be citizens only of these “Bantustans.” Some could temporarily work in white South Africa but without citizenship rights. In contrast, Israel offers no plans for Palestinian territory or jobs.

By the late 1980s, the apartheid system was cracking. The Bantustans needed major subsidies, and violence increased. The white minority grew frightened. In 1990, President F. W. de Klerk, fearing rivers of blood, released Nelson Mandela from a life sentence and ended apartheid in 1991. My intro comparative book included South Africa. My 1980 tour was a time trip back to colonialism. Fascinating, but its lessons apply little to the Israel/Palestine problem.

Israel will not deliberately imitate South Africa’s experiment, but absent any other solution, it may slide into one-and-a-half states: overall Israeli rule of a West Bank speckled with autonomous “Arabistans” of Palestinian non-citizens. Palestinian population growth will produce despairing youth ready for suicide attacks on Israelis. The situation will not gradually calm. Will we be drawn into the next war? Sometimes I want to scream: “Get out of the Middle East and stay out!” But a U.S. absence will only let things worsen.