Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves following meetings with US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. PHOTO: SAUL LOEB / AFP
US President Donald Trump shelved Washington’s years-long quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Wednesday, saying he would back a single state if it led to peace.
The new president warmly welcomed Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House and hailed the “unbreakable” bond between their countries.
And while he urged Netanyahu to “hold back” from building Jewish settlements for a “little bit,” Trump broke with international consensus insisting on a future that included a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like,” he said. “I can live with either one.”
Trump said he had thought a two-state solution “looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
This change in the US stance was calculated to please Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition.
“I think the Palestinians have to get rid of some of that hate that they’re taught from a very young age,” Trump said, echoing Netanyahu’s argument that the Palestinians are not ready for peace.
Netanyahu had warm words for the Israeli-US alliance, and hammered home his own prerequisites for peace.
“First, the Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state. They have to stop calling for Israel’s destruction,” he said.
“Second, in any peace agreement, Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.”
This region contains the entire West Bank area that would represent the heart of any Palestinian state as conceived in all previous international agreements.
– Arab capitals –
The previous US administration of Barack Obama had warned Israel that if it did not reach a two-state deal with the Palestinians, it would never reach an accommodation with the Arab world.
But Netanyahu insisted he was already developing closer security ties with his Sunni neighbors, who share Israel’s concerns about Iranian subversion and “radical Islam.”
And he urged Trump’s administration to get on board.
“For the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but increasingly as an ally,” he told Trump.
“I believe that under your leadership, this change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace.”
In a joint statement, the two sides proclaimed “a new day” in US-Israel relations and that there was “no daylight” between them.
Whatever the view in Cairo and Riyadh, the shift in Washington’s position, which was revealed overnight by a White House official, triggered Palestinian despair and consternation in international capitals.
The second-ranking official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat, denounced it as an attempt to “bury the two-state solution and eliminate the state of Palestine.”
And he implicitly warned Israelis that any single nation that emerged would not be specifically Jewish.
“There’s only one alternative,” he told a news conference. “A single democratic state that guarantees the rights of all: Jews, Muslims and Christians.”
– Victory cry –
The new US message deliberately echoed the long-standing Israeli position: no peace deal can be imposed from outside and the agenda for talks must reflect the reality on the ground.
Naftali Bennett, the right-wing leader of the hardline Jewish Home party and an opponent of any Palestinian state, cried victory.
“A new era. New ideas. No need for third Palestinian state beyond Jordan and Gaza. Big day for Israelis and reasonable Arabs,” he tweeted. “Congrats.”
But Trump’s decision flew in the face of an international consensus that any final status agreement must be based on a return to Israel’s 1967 border — albeit with land swaps.
Just five days before Trump’s January 20 inauguration, the United States was among 70 countries to endorse this vision at a peace conference in Paris.
One month before that, Obama’s UN ambassador allowed a Security Council motion that criticized Israeli settlement building to pass without the usual US veto.
Addressing a US-Israeli conference in December, the then secretary of state John Kerry called settlements a “barrier” to progress.
Under Trump, that vision appears dead, and Washington has aligned itself with Netanyahu’s government and its supporters in the right-wing settler movement.
After the White House talks, Netanyahu met with US congressional leaders in the US Capitol, where he addressed Trump’s call to slow settlement expansion.
“I think we’ll try to find a common understanding that is consistent with the pursuit of peace and security,” he said.
Speaking in Cairo after talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, UN chief Antonio Guterres warned that “everything must be done” to preserve the two-state solution.
France, which organized the January peace conference, was also unimpressed.
Its UN ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters “our commitment to the two-state solution is stronger than ever.”
Trump has tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner and lawyer Jason Greenblatt to lead peace efforts.
Netanyahu had dinner Tuesday with Kushner — a long-time family friend — and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.