President Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that he is willing to abandon the long-standing search for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, signaling a major shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The two-state solution has been the goal of U.S. efforts to achieve peace in the region for decades, and Trump’s willingness to consider a new policy pleased Israel’s right wing, which strongly supports a single state encompassing disputed Palestinian lands, and sparked widespread criticism among diplomats.
Trump also appeared to catch Netanyahu off-guard when he criticized the Israeli government’s recent sharp expansion of housing settlements in the occupied West Bank, land claimed by the Palestinians.
Appearing at a joint news conference before a White House summit, Trump turned to Netanyahu, who stood at the next podium, and said, "I'd like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit."
Netanyahu looked surprised and countered that settlements could be discussed as part of a final peace deal, but added they were "not the core of the conflict."
After years of chilly relations between Netanyahu and President Obama — like a bad marriage, their meetings often featured awkward body language and bitter sniping — the Israeli leader and Trump were all broad smiles, warm handshakes and gushing praise at their first get-together since the presidential election.
That may have been the point for a month-old presidency that appears in chaos, and for Netanyahu, who is battling allegations of corruption back home and needs to show Israelis he is back in good graces at the highest reaches in Washington.
“For both sides, the primary objective of this meeting is to change the political theater of the relationship,” said Michele Flournoy, a Defense official in the Clinton and Obama administrations. “To change the vibe, the feeling, the perception [to show] that ...you know, it's all kumbaya.”
Indeed, Trump and Netanyahu appeared in sync on most issues, especially on the elusive search for a long-term Mideast peace deal through a two-state solution. For years, U.S. and Israeli leaders, as well as most of the international community, have advocated the vision of two nations, one Israeli and one Palestinian, living side by side, as the key to peace.
A day after an anonymous White House official told reporters that Trump was no longer committed to that approach, the president made it official.
Trump said he wanted to forge "a really great peace deal" and would support whatever solution that Israelis and Palestinians wanted.
"I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one both parties like," Trump said. "I can live with either one."
Netanyahu, who has formally supported the two-state solution in the past, dodged the question.
Israel’s far right increasingly has pushed the idea of a single Israeli state of both Arabs and Jews, and control of the disputed West Bank, Golan Heights and other areas captured by Israel during the 1967 war.
Palestinians see much of that land as theirs, and insist on a separate sovereign state.
Other critics, including former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, note that Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews in a single-state scenario. They could use the ballot box to take control unless Israel abandons its democracy and restricts their rights the way South Africa once barred blacks from voting under apartheid.
During the campaign, Trump indicated he would be in lockstep with Netanyahu on Israeli policies, and rarely even mentioned the Palestinians. But since his inauguration, the new president has moderated some of his positions.
Trump was asked Wednesday, for example, about his campaign pledge to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move considered provocative because both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital.
Trump said he would “love” to see that and was thinking about it "very carefully," but would not commit to a move date. Jordan’s King Abdullah II recently warned the White House that moving the embassy would spark widespread unrest that could threaten his government, a major U.S. ally in the region.
As expected, Netanyahu and Trump were highly critical of the landmark arms-control deal, negotiated by six world powers — including the U.S. — and Iran in 2015, which eased sanctions against Tehran in exchange for Iran destroying or freezing its nuclear development programs.
Trump vowed to “do more to prevent Iran from ever developing -- I mean ever -- a nuclear weapon.” But he did not repeat his campaign promise to rip up the deal.
Netanyahu strongly defended Trump when asked about the xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments unleashed by some of Trump’s supporters during the presidential race last year.
"There is no greater friend of Israel," Netanyahu said of Trump, then singled out the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a lifelong, family friend.
Kushner, a 36-year-old observant Jew with no formal diplomatic experience, has been tapped by Trump to lead U.S. negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians.
His chances for success are difficult to gauge. Kushner certainly has the president’s ear and will be able to project authority in any talks. But Palestinians will be suspicious of his ties to Netanyahu, and as a newcomer, he may struggle with the endless complexities of the enduring conflict.
But Trump and Netanyahu said several Arab countries now see Iran and radical Islam as their primary enemies, not Israel. They said Saudi Arabia and other Arab states could be recruited to help negotiate a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Previous administrations have tried enlisting Arab states to craft a diplomatic solution, an approach known as “outside-in,” without evident success. It stands in contrast to the “inside-out” strategy, which argued that resolving the conflict directly through the two-state solution would lead to peace in the broader Middle East.
Getting Arab states to agree to cooperate would be difficult without offering concessions to the Palestinians and without recognizing the two-state solution, diplomats said.
“It will be hard to tap dance there for long,” Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said on Twitter. Palestinians and Arabs “can’t live with [a] walk back” from the two-state solution, he added. “‘Outside-in’ approach has no chance on this basis.”
Another former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, was also critical of Trump’s policy shift.
“If they think there’s a solution other than the two-state outcome, then they have not done their homework,” he told CNN.
In Israel, right-wing members of Netanyahu's government celebrated Trump’s distancing himself from a two-state policy.
“A new era. After 24 years, the Palestinian flag was lowered today from the staff and replaced by an Israeli flag,’’ tweeted Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party and a rival to Netanyahu.
“The positions expressed by the president are evidence that the two state solution is not the only solution to reach peace, and that the moment has arrived to change the equation and exert pressure on the Palestinian side,” Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan agreed on Twitter.
The Palestinian leadership reacted cautiously, with one official, Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestine Liberation Organization, saying Trump's policy shift seemed a work in progress.
Netanyahu’s visit comes at a delicate time for him back home, where he faces multiple investigations for alleged corruption, weakening his political position. He has denied the allegations.
He also faces heavy right-wing pressure to impose tougher anti-Palestinian measures, including annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, essentially wresting it from Palestinian control.
Special correspondent Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.
For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter
5:10 p.m.: This report has been revised for additional details and for clarity.
This report was originally posted at 4:20 p.m.