President Donald Trump suggested he was no longer committed to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a joint press conference with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state,” Trump said when asked whether he would seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that included the creation of a Palestinian state. “And I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.”
“I can live with either one. I thought for a while that two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two,” Trump said. “But honestly, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy ― I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
Trump’s comments could be an indication of a major change in U.S. policy, one that would carry complex and far-reaching implications. For almost two decades, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have sought to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution.
Trump’s Wednesday comments were previewed in a background briefing to a handful of reporters Tuesday evening.
While the president framed the conflict as a bilateral matter between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. in practice continues to play a decisive role in shaping the parameters of a potential Israeli-Palestinian agreement. If the U.S. casts aside a blueprint for resolution that dates to the Clinton administration, it would put the two groups in uncharted territory.
Absent a two-state solution, Israel would soon be in a position of choosing between trying to deny occupied Palestinians citizenship in perpetuity, or forfeiting the Jewish demographic majority that gives the state its Jewish character. Israel is already under increasing pressure from pro-Palestinian activists, many of whom have long despaired of a two-state solution, to grant equal rights to all people in the territory it controls.
Palestinian leaders, for their part, would almost certainly refuse any deal that did not grant them full sovereign rights, whether in their own state or a shared state with Israeli Jews. Nor is it clear how the abandoning the two-state framework is compatible with enrolling U.S.-backed Arab states like Egypt and Jordan in peacemaking efforts, as the Trump administration suggested it would like to do.
Some experts have offered more nuanced readings of Trump’s remarks, however, pointing out that they do not necessarily mark a radical shift in U.S. policy.
“The way Trump said it, which is, ‘whatever they both agree to is fine with me,’ doesn’t strike people as particularly unusual,” said Shibley Telhami, a specialist in American Middle East policy at the University of Maryland.
But something that might give Palestinians, in particular, cause for concern is the idea that the conflict should be managed between Israel and the Palestinians alone, according to Telhami, who is also a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“If it is simply up to them, without reference to international resolution and international law, or any sense of fairness, then [Palestinians] are on the losing end,” Telhami said. “Because it’s an asymmetric world. They’re occupied and Israel has more power.”
In other ways, Trump hewed toward more conventional U.S. peacemaking parameters on Wednesday. He expressed a desire for concessions from both sides, including a pause on Israeli settlement expansion.
“I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” Trump said, addressing Netanyahu directly. “We’ll work something out, but I would like to see a deal be made. I think a deal will be made.”
Trump also appeared to walk back his campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“I’d love to see that happen,” Trump said of the move. “We’re looking at it very, very strongly. We’re looking at it with great care.”
Trump has made similar comments in interviews in recent weeks. But his remarks alongside Netanyahu were perhaps the clearest sign yet that he is rethinking the decision, which many Middle Eastern leaders have warned could have an incendiary effect in the region.
Trump and Netanyahu are meeting this week for the first time since Trump’s inauguration. Expectations were high for the meeting, given Trump’s promises to repair ties with Netanyahu’s conservative government after years of on-and-off tensions with the Obama administration.
Netanyahu was reportedly under pressure from his right-wing coalition partners to elicit a promise from Trump that the U.S. would no longer pursue a two-state solution. A majority of Netanyahu’s Cabinet openly opposes the two-state solution, preferring to annex major portions of the occupied West Bank while continuing to deprive the Palestinians of full sovereignty. But Netanyahu told his Cabinet that he wants to avoid a confrontation with Trump, and that he feels the American president believes in a peace deal, Haaretz reported.
Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Jewish Home Party and the education minister in the current Israeli government, interpreted Trump’s remarks favorably, applauding them on Twitter.
Netanyahu responded to Trump’s comments at Wednesday’s press conference with characteristic diplomacy, observing that few Americans or Israelis agree on what a two-state solution would look like in any event. Rather than embrace Trump’s comments as evidence that the two-state solution is no longer viable, Netanyahu reiterated his two “prerequisites for peace” with the Palestinians. Those conditions are Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and ensuring Israel “the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.”
The Palestine Liberation Organization, which maintains control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, recognized Israel’s existence in 1988. Netanyahu insists, however, that it must also recognize the state’s Jewish character.
In addition to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump and Netanyahu spoke about their shared commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But even in a matter where the Trump administration is largely in agreement with the Israeli government, the two men had very different ways of expressing their views. Trump lambasted the Iran nuclear arms control deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama, although the White House has given no sign that it intends to jettison the agreement.
“The security challenges faced by Israel are enormous, including the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which I’ve talked a lot about. One of the worst deals I’ve ever seen is the Iran deal,” Trump said. “My administration has already imposed new sanctions on Iran, and I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing ― I mean ever ― a nuclear weapon.”
Netanyahu, by contrast, did not directly address the deal.
“Preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons [is] something that President Trump and I, I think, are deeply committed to do,” he said. “And we are obviously going to discuss that.”
He went on to praise Trump’s handling of the separate matters of Iranian ballistic missiles and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia.
“Challenging Iran on its violations of ballistic missiles; imposing sanctions on Hezbollah, preventing them, making them pay for the terrorism that they foment throughout the Middle East and beyond, well beyond, I think that’s a change that is clearly evident in ― since President Trump took office,” he said.
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who advised Palestinian leaders during negotiations with Israel from 2004 to 2009, argued that a positive outcome of Trump’s remarks might be the expansion of the debate to consider a one-state scenario where Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal rights.
But he warned that absent additional details, the president’s comments could, in the near term, bolster the vision of the Israeli right wing, which effectively supports continuing the one-state occupation indefinitely.
“For the administration to not clarify what it means by alternatives to a two-state solution is unsettling,” Elgindy said. “If you have the status quo, permanent occupation, essentially that is a form of apartheid.”
“I would expect that there will be probably some pushback from allies in the region,” he went on. “My sense is that [the Trump administration] really didn’t think this through.”