Trump’s meet with Israel’s Netanyahu sees break from US middle east policy

President Donald Trump on Wednesday urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to curb settlement activity but avoided any explicit endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a longstanding bedrock of US Middle East policy.

world Updated: Feb 24, 2017 10:12 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
US Israel relations,Donald Trump,Benjamin Netanyahu
US President Donald Trump addresses a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, US, on February 15, 2017.(Reuters Photo)

President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he was prepared to accept any peace formula that was acceptable to Israel and Palestine, discarding decades-old US policy forged with bipartisan support advocating a two-state solution.

“I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said addressing a joint news briefing with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”

A two-state solution, with a Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine co-existing side by side, has been the stated policy of the United States for almost two decades now, and is favored as the best possible solution by other powers and world bodies.

Though Trump didn’t detail his reasons, a senior White House officials had told reporters earlier the administration was looking at peace as the goal and not the peace formula to get there. “A two-state solution that doesn’t bring peace is not a goal that anybody wants to achieve,” he had said, adding, “Peace is the goal, whether it comes in the form of a two-state solution if that’s what the parties want or something else, if that’s what the parties want... we’re going to help them.”

Netanyahu himself has publicly endorsed it, even while he has aggressively pushed for expanding Israeli settlements in occupied areas, which led to extremely frosty relations with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Read | Kerry says 2-state solution can solve Israeli-Palestine conflict

Trump also indicated he expected Israel to hold off on settlements. “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” he said, adding it could be a deal that will be “bigger and better” than “most people in the room can understand”.

The Israeli leader replied guardedly, “Let’s try it.”

But he pushed later in response to a direct questions: “I believe that the issue of the settlements is not the core of the conflict, nor does it really drive the conflict. I think it’s an issue, it has to be resolved in the context of peace negotiations.”

And, mindful probably of his differences with Obama on the issue that had marred their relationship, Netanyahu said, “And I think we also are going to speak about it, President Trump and I, so we can arrive at an understanding so we don’t keep on bumping into each other all the time on this issue.”

Trump has promised to improve ties with Israel and has vowed to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv, where all countries including India have their missions, to Jerusalem, parts of which are claimed by Palestinians.

He has said he plans to appoint his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a New York real-estate magnate, to drive his middle-east policy. Kushner, who has no foreign policy experience, is Jewish and, most importantly, has his father-in-law’s ear.

Read | US shift on two-state solution ‘doesn’t make sense’: Palestinians

And Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, David M Friedman, is a lawyer who identifies with hardliners in Israel, questions two-state solution, backs news settlements and has said he looks forward to working from the US embassy in Jerusalem.

But when asked about his timeline for the relocation, Trump was evasive at the presser: “I’d love to see that happen. We’re looking at it very, very strongly. We’re looking at it with great care -- great care, believe me. And we’ll see what happens.

Palestinians alarmed

Palestinians reacted with alarm to the possibility that Washington might ditch its support for an independent Palestinian nation.

“If the Trump administration rejects this policy it would be destroying the chances for peace and undermining American interests, standing and credibility abroad,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in response to the US official’s remarks.

“Accommodating the most extreme and irresponsible elements in Israel and in the White House is no way to make responsible foreign policy,” she said in a statement.

Read | Palestinians may ‘reverse’ Israel recognition if Trump moves US embassy to Jerusalem

Husam Zomlot, strategic adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Palestinians had not received any official indication of a change in the US stance.

For Netanyahu, the talks with Trump are an opportunity to reset ties after a frequently combative relationship with Democrat Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor. After speaking to reporters, the two leaders were due to hold talks in the Oval Office followed by a working lunch.

The prime minister, under investigation at home over allegations of abuse of office, spent much of Tuesday huddled with advisers in Washington preparing for the talks. Officials said they wanted no gaps to emerge between US and Israeli thinking during the scheduled two-hour Oval Office meeting.

Trump, who has been in office less than four weeks and has already been immersed in problems including the forced resignation of his national security adviser earlier this week, brings with him an unpredictability that Netanyahu’s staff hope will not impinge on the discussions.

The two leaders, who seemed to strike up an emerging “bromance” in social media exchanges since the election, sought to demonstrate good personal chemistry face-to-face as well, both sporting smiles and exchanging asides.

Meetings with Obama were at best cordial and businesslike, at worst tense and awkward. In one Oval Office encounter in 2011, Obama grimaced as Netanyahu lectured him in front of the cameras on the suffering of the Jewish people through the ages.

Also read | US allows UN to condemn Israeli settlements, Netanyahu furious

(With agency inputs)

First Published: Feb 16, 2017 00:00 IST