Ne­tanyahu’s talk of a ‘state-mi­nus’ stumps diplo­mats

Short­hand for his stance on a Pales­tinian na­tion could mean many things

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY WIL­LIAM BOOTH AND RUTH EGLASH wil­liam.booth@wash­post.com ruth.eglash@wash­post.com

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.

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 “statemi­nus.”

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 that 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 the idea of a twostate 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.

THOMAS COEX/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Two peo­ple watch the sun set­ting Mon­day on Jerusalem’s Old City, with the Is­lamic Dome of the Rock at cen­ter. Con­trol of Jerusalem, with shrines holy to three re­li­gions, is cen­tral to the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict.

RO­NEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu at­tends a cab­i­net meet­ing Sun­day in Jerusalem. He will meet with Pres­i­dent Trump next month.

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