Did President Trump just toss decades of American policy on the Middle East in the trash — or was Donald just being the Donald?
A seemingly off-the-cuff comment by the new president could mean the world for Israelis and Palestinians, or just represent an easy-breezy can-do approach to the conflict from a billionaire who prides himself of being the master of the deal.
“I’m looking at two states and one state,” Mr. Trump said, in his White House press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
In other words, America, under Trump, is open to depart from its adherence to a two-state solution as the cornerstone of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Taken at face value, Trump’s comment sent shockwaves through the system, prompting advocates of a two-state solution to cry foul and sending pro-settlement activists cheering for what could be the end of the era of expecting Israel to withdraw from the West Bank which it has occupied since 1967.
“This statement flies in the face of established American policy and will undoubtedly create damaging confusion among our allies and adversaries,” said the dovish lobby J Street in a statement following Trump and Netanyahu’s meeting. The group said it was “deeply concerned” with Trump’s approach.
But for Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, trying to balance a right-wing coalition at home that is demanding a clear departure from the two-state solution, and his wish to maintain working relations with moderate Arab countries surrounding Israel, Trump’s comment was seen not as a departure from long-standing policy. Rather it was a nod toward a Netanyahu-style peace deal, one that stops short of a full Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“It all depends on how you define two states,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters after the meeting. The Israeli leader recalled a conversation he held with former vice president Joe Biden over a year ago in which Netanyahu stressed that in any future solution, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Israel must maintain security authority over the entire area.
“That won’t be a sovereign state,” Biden responded.
“That’s what we’re willing to offer,” Netanyahu shot back.
With Trump, the Israeli leader feels the U.S. will be on board even if the two state solution will include a Jewish state of Israel, whatever that exactly means, and something less than a state for the Palestinians, whatever that means.
Netanyahu left the White House enchanted by the new president.
“I’ve met many presidents in my life, I’ve been coming to this place for 35 years, and I can state clearly that there has never been a greater friend for Israel than President Trump,” Netanyahu said at the Blair House after concluding his three-hour visit with Trump.
What is it about Trump that makes him stand out in the eyes of the Israeli leader?
Netanyahu said it is Trump’s “empathy and sympathy” - personal empathy he feels to Netanyahu, and sympathy toward the state of Israel. Netanyahu even mentioned the warm relations between his wife Sara and First Lady Melania Trump and his previous friendship with the Kushner family, who’s son Jared is married to Trump’s daughter and serves as the president’s top adviser.
This could explain Netanyahu’s eagerness to vouch for Trump when it came to the surge in anti-Semitism since he took office. During the joint press conference, Trump was asked about the issue but in his response the President did not mention anti-Semitism at all, instead choosing to recall his election victory and the electoral vote count.
Netanyahu volunteered to tell the media that Trump is a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people. In the Oval Office meeting, the prime minister did not raise questions regarding the White House’s decision not to mention the Jewish people in its statement issued on international Holocaust memorial day.
“We checked it beforehand,” Netanyahu explained, “and there was no doubt that the president and his team understand the significance of the Holocaust as a systematic effort to destroy the Jewish people and the centrality of the Holocaust in the life of the Jewish people.” He said that concerns voiced by Jewish groups in America following the statement and the White House’s refusal to correct it, were “without any base.”
But President Trump, visibly distracted and entering the meeting with Netanyahu as the shadow of the Michael Flynn affair takes over national agenda, gave little information, at least in the public part of the meeting, about his plans for achieving Middle East peace.
“I think we’re going to make a deal,” he said. “The United States will encourage a peace, and really a great peace deal. We’ll be working on it very diligently.” But the deal, Trump stressed, will require concessions from both sides, including Israel. “The Israelis are going to show some flexibility,” he said. “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
In the meeting, both sides agreed to leave the settlement question for further conversations in the future, acknowledging the difference of opinion between Trump’s wish to see limitations put in place and Netanyahu’s desire to expand existing settlements and build at least one new one.
Netanyahu left the White House with a smile on his face and a clear sense that eight years of tension with the American leader have come to an end. Trump, seeking some relief from mounting pressure to investigate his ties with Russia, also enjoyed a few hours of friendly discussion with a world leader eager to sing his praise.
Left out of the party were the Palestinians, who watched Trump and Netanyahu’s joint press conference with anger and surprise.
“We believe undermining the two state solution is not a joke,” veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Washington Post. “It’s a disaster and a tragedy for Israelis and Palestinians.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman