One thing Trump gets right

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, is part of the faction in Israel that knows it will need to compromise with the Palestinians, according to columnist Bret Stephens. Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg

In this week’s Mideast news, the Iranian regime has reportedly killed more than 100 of its own people as it attempts to suppress another wave of nationwide demonstrations. The Islamic State is taking advantage of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria to regroup. Governments in Lebanon and Iraq remain paralyzed by popular discontent. And Israel has struck dozens of targets near Damascus after intercepting Iranian rockets fired from Syria.

Into this thicket of trouble, Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that the State Department would reverse a 41-year-old legal opinion claiming that Israeli settlements in the West Bank were inconsistent with international law. The decision has garnered outsized attention, as if it’s another gratuitous Trumpian obstacle on the road to peace.

It’s not. To paraphrase Ariana Grande, we have one less problem without it.

I rarely have anything positive to say about Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and his overall approach to the Middle East is damaging and potentially disastrous for the United States and Israel alike. America cannot turn its back on the region, as Trump would like to do, and imagine the Middle East will return the favor. And Israel will not be safe in an America First world in which allies like the Kurds are cavalierly betrayed and enemies like Iran are only haphazardly confronted.

But let me give the administration some credit: When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least it isn’t stuck in a time warp, hanging on to hoary shibboleths.

Among those shibboleths: That the conflict can be solved by returning to the status quo ante 1967, or at least an approximation of it. That peace between Israel and the Arab states hinges on delivering a Palestinian state. And that settlement construction is the principal obstacle to peace.

This is all nonsense. The pan-Arab campaign to “liberate” Palestine began two decades before Israel controlled an inch of Gaza or the West Bank. Resolving the territorial dispute arising from the 1967 war does nothing to solve the existential issues arising from Israel’s creation in 1948. Relations with much of the Arab world have flourished in recent years, not on account of any progress on the Palestinian front, but because Arab states see Israel as a capable ally against an imperialist Iran.

As for settlements, Israel withdrew all of its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The result was more war, not less. What began as a moment of hope rapidly descended into a Palestinian civil war. That was followed by a Hamas victory, three major wars, and innumerable bloody skirmishes. Now we have an endless limbo in which Israelis live under constant threat, Gazans chafe under a remorseless tyranny, and groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad somehow have the means to acquire and fire hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilian targets.

Whatever else one might say about the administration, at least it understands that it would be worse than useless to demand that Israelis repeat the experiment on a much larger scale. Reversing a legally shaky opinion that does little more than drive American policy down a familiar cul-de-sac advances nobody’s interests, including those of the Palestinians.

I say “legally shaky” because it was never clear just whose territory Israel supposedly occupied when it wrested the West Bank from Jordanian control in a defensive war: Jordan’s claims to the area weren’t internationally recognized, either.

The more important point is that no progress can be made by repeatedly exhuming an increasingly distant past. As a matter of principle, Israel needs a two-state solution because it should not indefinitely rule (even indirectly) people who do not wish to be ruled by Israel. As a matter of survival, Israel also requires that a Palestinian state have neither the ambition nor the means to devote itself to Israel’s ultimate destruction.

The core problem with the past half-century of failed peacemaking efforts has been the facile assumption that meeting the need for two states would ultimately fulfill the requirement for security. The lesson of experience has been the opposite. The failure of Palestinians and their international enablers to satisfy that requirement — or even feign concern for it — has only made the need seem like little more than a remote abstraction to most Israelis.

This presents its own dangers. Having a right to build settlements is one thing. Having the right and exercising it wisely are separate things. A wise Israel needs to understand that it will have to compromise with the Palestinians at some point, in conditions that make compromise possible.

Opposition leader Benny Gantz, who on Wednesday failed to assemble a ruling coalition, gets this. Benjamin Netanyahu, who lately has promised to annex parts of the West Bank, does not. We’re a long way from knowing which of them will become prime minister.

In the meantime, the administration’s ruling on settlements cleans out some of the cobwebs under which thinking about the conflict has moldered. Good. Peace, if it comes, will not be the result of a diplomatic solution, much less as part of a legal argument over the Geneva Convention. It will happen as a cultural evolution, in which a new generation of Palestinian leaders dedicate themselves to building up the institutions of a decent state rather than attacking those of their neighbor; and in which Israelis have the wisdom to wait for those leaders, if necessary for decades.

New York Times


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(12) comments


Spot on and good reporting. Nice to see folks report on what is right instead of what politician they like or dislike. Real news.

hermit thrush

this is an opinion piece. it's in the opinion section. it's perfectly fine to think it's a good take, but to call it "good reporting" or "real news" is kind of wild.


Actually, the first two paragraphs of Stephens' piece are facts not opinion.

hermit thrush

so? (and that's not even true of the second paragraph.)

Holmes -- the real one

2+2 = 4.

The earth is flat. We never landed on the moon.

Trump is doing a wonderful job of running the country.


With regard to the comment below I can't comment on, all I'm saying is it's not totally an opinion piece, as you state. There are "facts" in it.

hermit thrush

the same is true of every single opinion piece ever published. we still call them opinion pieces. this is 100% an opinion piece.

Holmes -- the real one

At this point it seems misleading to suggest that Trump himself is getting anything right. The reason we are seeing complete sentences with no spelling mistakes is not because he has suddenly turned presidential. It should be clear to anyone who has been watching the Trump drama that he is currently functioning in such a diminished cognitive capacity that he is unable to execute even simple communication in an effective manner. When he speaks he loses his train of thought. He even contradicts himself mid-sentence. These are clear signs of progressive dementia.

Anything we see that is presented as "Trump policy decisions" are directives from his more shadowed 'handlers.'


What do you think about the substance of Stephens' article?

Holmes -- the real one


Can you paraphrase?

Holmes -- the real one

You can get the t shirt too.

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