Charting a striking new course for the Middle East, President Donald Trump on Wednesday withheld clear support for an independent Palestine and declared he could endorse a one-nation solution to the long and deep dispute between Palestinians and Israel.
The American president, signaling a new era of comity between the U.S. and Israel after rocky relations under President Barack Obama, said he was more interested in an agreement that leads to peace than in any particular path to get there. Standing beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump broke not only with recent U.S. presidents but also distanced the United States from the prevailing position of much of the world.
While Trump urged Netanyahu to "hold off" on Jewish settlement construction in territory the Palestinians claim for their future state, he offered unwavering support for Israel, a pledge he appeared to substantiate with his vague comments about the shape of any agreement.
While it once appeared that a two-state solution was the "easier of the two" options for the Palestinians and Israel, Trump said he'd be open to alternatives. "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like," he told reporters. "I can live with either one."
The United States has formally backed the two-state solution as official policy since 2002, when President George W. Bush said in the White House Rose Garden that his vision was "two states, living side by side in peace and security."
In practice, the U.S. already had embraced the policy informally. President Bill Clinton, who oversaw the Oslo Accords in the 1990s that were envisioned as a stepping stone to Palestinian statehood, said before leaving office that resolution to the conflict required a viable Palestinian state.
Separately on Wednesday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called on Netanyahu to end settlement building and expressed "willingness to resume a credible peace process " Also on Wednesday, CIA chief Mike Pompeo secretly held talks in the West Bank with Abbas, the first high-level meeting between the Palestinian leader and a Trump administration official, senior Palestinian officials said. The White House wouldn't comment on the meeting
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All serious peace negotiations in recent decades have assumed the emergence of an independent Palestine. The alternatives appear to offer dimmer prospects for peace, given Palestinian demands for statehood. Dozens of countries, including the U.S., reaffirmed their support for a two-state accord at an international conference in Paris last month, before Trump's inauguration.
In Cairo on Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: "There is no Plan B to the situation between Palestinians and Israelis but a two-state solution. ... Everything must be done to preserve that possibility."
At one point Wednesday, Trump noted the need for compromise in achieving any Mideast peace. Netanyahu interjected: "Both sides."
On terrorism and other matters, there appeared little daylight between the leaders.
Echoing language used by Trump over a need to combat "radical Islamic extremism," Netanyahu said that for peace to be sustainable, two "prerequisites" must be met: "Recognition of the Jewish state and Israel's security needs west of the Jordan" River.
While a two-state solution would involve Israel ceding occupied territory that is strategically and religiously significant, many in the country believe a single binational state would be even more difficult to maintain. It would mean granting millions of Palestinians citizenship and voting rights, threatening Israel's Jewish majority and its Jewish character.
Trump's campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and his inner circle included allies of the West Bank settler movement. A delegation of settlement leaders was invited to Trump's inauguration.
But after weeks of dancing around the issue of expanded Israeli settlement construction, Trump asked Netanyahu to "hold back on settlements for a bit."
In recent weeks, Netanyahu has approved construction of more than 6,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast War. He also allowed Parliament to pass a law retroactively legalizing some 4,000 settlement homes built on private Palestinian land.
Still, Netanyahu indicated he was open to some sort of arrangement.
"We'll work something out but I'd like to see a deal be made. I think a deal will be made," he said.
And Naftali Bennet, the head of Israel's pro-settler Jewish Home Party, hailed the new atmosphere between Trump and Netanyahu, saying: "The Palestinian flag was today lowered from the mast and replaced with the Israeli flag."
American presidents have long struck a delicate balance in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stressing the close U.S. friendship with Israel but also sometimes calling out Israel for actions seen as undermining peace efforts, such as expanding settlements.
Trump and Netanyahu also were to discuss Iran and the president's campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On Wednesday, Trump said that he'd like to see the embassy move and said his administration is studying the issue closely. Palestinians and Arab governments have warned that such a move could be deeply destabilizing.
After repeatedly clashing with Obama, including over a U.N. Security Council resolution in December condemning Israeli settlements, Netanyahu has seemed relieved by Trump's arrival. He even recounted his personal relationships with members of Trump's family, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom Trump has previously described as the man who could mediate a Middle East peace deal.
"Can I reveal, Jared, how long we've known you?" Netanyahu said with a chuckle. "I've known the president and his family and his team for a long time and there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump."