Has Benjamin Netanyahu won?

What seems to be a win for the Israeli prime minister could, in fact, be chaos in the long-term.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
In calling Netanyahu's bluff, Trump has fed an Israeli debate on the potential consequences of Israel's current trajectory in the Occupied Territories, write Toaldo and Lovatt [Reuters]

The election of Donald Trump was eagerly greeted by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Coming after a rocky eight years in US-Israel relations under President Barack Obama, their recent meeting in Washington, DC, was intended to signal a “reset” in relations between the two sides.

For Netanyahu, this also offered an occasion to move the United States away from the two-state solution and bury what was left of future prospects of Palestinian statehood. The Israeli prime minister may well have succeeded in this, but his victory brings with it new problems.

Winning is not a win for Netanyahu

Israel-US relations have indeed got off to a good start. As anticipated, the US president indicated a  willingness to roll-back his country’s long-standing commitment to the two-state.

With his almost casual remarks Trump seemed to have given Netanyahu enough political space to finally legitimise what the Israeli leader wrote in his 1993 book A Place Among Nations,  that was meant to launch him as Likud leader and eventually prime minister. In it he envisaged Israel controlling the whole area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, while allowing the Palestinians some control over their major population centres and giving them “economic peace”.

But Netanyahu’s opposition to two states does not make him a one-stater. In fact, he has at times been quite open about his vision for solving the Palestinian conflict through the creation of Palestinian “state minus”.

In many ways, this dream of his had already come true well before Trump’s election. As he wrote in 1993, the Palestinian territories are already an archipelago of semi-autonomous cities in a sea of Israeli security control.

Later in his political career, Netanyahu explained that if the Palestinians wanted to call this archipelago of semi-autonomous cities a state, have their flag and sing their anthem, then so be it.

Moreover, the demise of the two-state solution leaves a vacuum that will increasingly be filled by advocates of a one-state solution that encompasses both Israel and the Palestinian territories.


The Israeli prime minister’s ability to realise his vision for the Palestinians was made possible thanks to the 1993 Oslo accords. These have underpinned most of his political career and created a system in which Israel has control over the West Bank but no responsibility for the wellbeing or even the stability of its Palestinian inhabitants.

A mix of US and European money and security assistance provides for that, and in doing so, relieved Israel of the financial and military burden of controlling the Palestinian population, along with its responsibilities under international law as an occupying power.

OPINION: US and Israel join forces to bury Palestinian statehood

But maintaining this reality has depended on the semblance of a diplomatic process to ensure a modicum of stability in the Palestinian territories and deflect international criticism over Israeli actions.

This has also been vital in maintaining the illusion that Israel intends its control over the territories to be only temporary, despite evidence to the contrary.

In many ways, the political space created by Trump’s shift on the Palestinian issue and his rupturing of the “Middle East Peace Process” myth might therefore become a problem for Netanyahu’s long-standing strategy of maintaining an ambiguity over the future of the occupied territories.

Losing the cover of the two-state solution

It is hard to see how Palestinian leaders would be willing to forgo sovereignty and basic freedoms that perpetual Israeli security control would entail as preconditions to enter peace talks.

Such a vision would be at odds with Palestinian aspirations to fulfil their right to self-determination through an end to Israel’s occupation, and put the Palestinian Authority in an unsustainable position.

Without the prospect of statehood, the PA would find it difficult to shake their image as the administrators of Israel’s occupation, something that would further aggravate their current crisis of domestic legitimacy at a time when President Mahmoud Abbas’ succession is feeding political and security instability.

For Israel’s relations with Arab partners, the waning of a viable independent Palestinian state poses more problems. The prospect of a two-state solution has acted as important cover for Israel’s backdoor normalisation of relations with Arab states – some of which do not officially recognise it.

Removing the possibility of future Palestinian sovereignty from the table would complicate this process and frustrate Israel’s ability to find common ground with regional partners on issues outside its conflict with the Palestinians, particularly on containing Iranian regional influence.

OPINION: Don’t blame Trump for tiring of the two-state solution

It would also be strongly resisted by neighbouring states, not least since they would be faced with the prospect of having to integrate or indefinitely segregate hundreds of thousands of Palestinians within their population, either of which would risk of further destabilisation.

Losing the cover of the two-state solution could pose additional challenges for Israeli relations with the outside world, in particular Europe, whose policy of differentiating between Israel and the settlements would clash head on with a more openly annexationist Israel.

Closer to home, a US shift away from the two-state solution could empower political rivals on Netanyahu’s right flank calling for the formal annexation of Palestinian territory, and those on his left warning of the dangers of the emerging one state reality. It is an irony that many of these politicians started off their careers under Netanyahu.

What kind of a one-state solution?

Moreover, the demise of the two-state solution leaves a vacuum that will increasingly be filled by advocates of a one-state solution that encompasses both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has long advocated granting Palestinians full rights within a Jewish state, although in practice the emphasis on “Jewish identity” would sit difficultly with what would be a majority Palestinian population.

For their part, growing numbers of Palestinians are discussing equal rights within a binational state. President Trump’s apparent openness to a one-state solution will lend further weight to these voices.

Trump could, therefore, have inadvertently done something past US presidents have struggled to do. By effectively, though unintentionally, calling Netanyahu’s bluff, he has fed an Israeli debate on the alternatives to a two-state solution and the potential consequences of Israel’s current trajectory in the occupied territories.

In hindsight, Netanyahu may conclude that he could have done with a less accommodating US president, perhaps even reminding Trump of his famous remarks on the campaign trail: “Mr President, we can’t take it any more … we’re winning too much!”

OPINION: Donald Trump and the death of the two-state solution

Mattia Toaldo is a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations’ Middle East and North Africa Programme where he focuses on Libya, Israel/Palestine and migration issues.

Hugh Lovatt is a policy fellow and Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council of Foreign Relations based in London.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.