Trump Retreats From Two-State Policy in Middle East

Trump Retreats From Two-State Policy in Middle East
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President Trump on Wednesday retreated from decades of U.S. policy endorsing an eventual two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, saying he could “live with” alternatives.

“I'm very happy with the one that both parties like,” Trump said during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I'm looking at two-state and one-state,” he added.

“I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians -- if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best,” Trump said, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.

Netanyahu, who heaped praise on Trump and assured the new president of Israel’s support and “shared values,” said he embraced “a broader peace” in the region beyond just the Palestinians, who he said seek “the destruction of my country.”

“I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach, from involving our new-found Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians,” the prime minister said. “I greatly look forward to discussing this in detail with you, Mr. President, because I think that if we work together, we have a shot.”

Trump -- who handed the administration’s Middle East peace portfolio to his 36-year-old son-in-law, Jared Kushner (who attended the East Room event with wife Ivanka Trump) -- told Netanyahu he believes the pursuit of peace regionally, brokered with help from Arab allies, is a novel approach that potentially could deliver success.

“It is something that is very different, hasn't been discussed before,” Trump said. “And it's actually a much bigger deal -- much more important deal, in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory.”

A one-state solution refers to a political system that would encourage Jews and Palestinians to retain separate nationalities within a single country, while the two-state policy endorsed by Congress and U.S. presidents since the late 1990s, sets as goals an independent Palestine alongside a democratic, Jewish Israel. Netanyahu said the “labels” used were less important than the substance of a peace accord in which Palestinians recognize a Jewish state, and Israel holds sway over security in territories west of the Jordan River.

J Street, the moderate pro-Israel political organization that backs a two-state approach to peace, called Trump’s remarks “meaningless and dangerous,” and said his failure to support an independent Palestine would “remove the anchor that has steadied and stabilized U.S. policy toward the region. Without that anchor, U.S. policy is unmoored and Israelis and Palestinians will drift into ever-stormier waters.”

Trump said his preferred approach could succeed if Israel showed “flexibility,” and if the Palestinians “get rid of some of that hate that they’re taught from a very young age.” The president said a negotiated peace, supported by Arab partners, would depend on shared commitments.

“I think they very much would like to … make a deal, or I wouldn't be happy and I wouldn't be here and I wouldn't be as optimistic as I am,” Trump said about Israel as he glanced at Netanyahu. “I can tell you from the standpoint of Bibi and from the standpoint of Israel, I really believe they want to make a deal. And they'd like to see the big deal,” he told reporters.

Although the half-hour news conference took place before the two leaders began private discussions in the Oval Office and ate lunch together, differences over Israeli settlements and a back-and-forth over the Iran nuclear deal were on display. And Trump declined to describe any timetable to fulfill his campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” he told Netanyahu, repeating a message delivered Feb. 2 by the new administration in a written statement. Looking at his guest’s facial expression, the president added, “He doesn’t look too optimistic.” The prime minister laughed, saying, “That’s the art of the deal.”

Netanyahu downplayed the mention of Israel’s aggressive construction of settlements on land Palestinians believe should become part of an independent Palestine.

“I believe that the issue of the settlements is not the core of the conflict, nor does it really drive the conflict,” the prime minister argued. “I think it's an issue that has to be resolved in the context of peace negotiations.”

Netanyahu said he and the president should “arrive at an understanding so we don’t keep on bumping into each other all the time on this issue.”  

The Iran nuclear pact negotiated under the Obama administration has been sharply criticized by both leaders since it was concluded. They share a belief that Iran will cheat and pursue a nuclear weapon despite Tehran’s agreement to abide by international restrictions imposed under terms reached by six Western nations and Iran in the summer of 2015.

Trump campaigned for the presidency vowing to overhaul what he called a bad deal with Iran, and on Wednesday he promised as president to “do more to prevent Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon.” He pointed to new sanctions imposed by his administration in response to a separate dispute over an Iranian missile test. But he offered no specifics.

Netanyahu effusively praised Trump’s position, but indicated nothing about next steps.

“Mr. President, you've shown great clarity and courage in confronting this challenge head on. You call for confronting Iran's terrorist regime, preventing Iran from realizing this terrible deal into a nuclear arsenal, and you have said that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” he said.

During the news conference, Trump also responded to a question about the sudden departure of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was effectively fired by the president late Monday night.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday said the president asked Flynn to resign because he’d lost “trust” in him. On Wednesday, Trump blamed Flynn’s departure on “fake media,” arguing his West Wing adviser was the victim of anonymous and “criminal” leaks of intelligence information to reporters, although the White House had corroborated the news reporting about Flynn’s phone calls with a Russian diplomat before Trump took office.

“I think it's really a sad thing that he was treated so badly,” Trump said of the retired former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “I think in addition to that, from intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It's criminal action.” Trump has ordered his advisers to help uncover leakers of intelligence information within the government.

A few hours later, the president lost another senior administration adviser after Labor Secretary-designee Andrew Puzder withdrew his Cabinet nomination prior to a Senate confirmation hearing. Puzder, a restaurant chain executive, lost key support among lawmakers and labor unions following public disclosure of personal and tax information, and statements perceived by Republicans and Democrats as hostile to American workers. On Wednesday, a Tennessee restaurant worker prepared to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against Puzder’s company, CKE Restaurants, and its Hardees franchise.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, who represents Puzder’s home state of Missouri, said Wednesday that the nominee “would have done a good job and was a good choice and just wound up with a couple of obstacles that were hard to get around."

On Friday, Trump is scheduled to visit a Boeing Dreamliner jet facility in North Charleston, S.C., to discuss his administration’s job-creation policies, and on Saturday, the president will headline a campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Fla., before spending the rest of the weekend at his Palm Beach estate.

Rebecca Berg contributed to this report.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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