Donald Trump says US not committed to two-state Israel-Palestine solution

Speaking alongside Benjamin Netanyahu, US president appears to dismantle years of policy by saying he is looking at multiple options for peace

Donald Trump has dropped a two-decades old US commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a permanent Middle East peace agreement.

Speaking at a joint press conference with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the US president did not rule out a two-state solution but implied his administration had no ­preference when it came to the final ­geography of the region as part of a ­permanent Middle East peace agreement.

Asked what he thought about a two-state solution on Wednesday, Trump said: “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.

Trump’s comments dismantled one of the key pillars of the US-led peace efforts since before the signing of the Oslo accords, which envisioned the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish one.

“The United States will encourage peace and really a great peace deal,” the US president said. “We will be working on it very, very diligently. But it is the parties themselves who must directly negotiate such an agreement.

“To be honest, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

In an otherwise effusive welcome for his Israeli ally, Trump used the occasion to deliver a mild rebuke to Netanyahu on the pace of settlement construction, suggesting that it would be one of the compromises necessary to strike a deal.

“I’d like to see you pull back on settlements for a little bit,” he said.

The Israeli government has said it plans to build approximately 6,000 Jewish settlement housing units in the West Bank, signalling a surge in planned construction since Trump was sworn in as president in January.

Netanyahu shrugged off Trump’s comment, gave no such undertaking, and insisted that settlements were “not the core of the conflict”.

Trump castigated the Palestinians for teaching their children to “hate” Israel. But he continued to put off his pledge to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a constant demand of the US and Israeli right, while insisting it was being considered very carefully.

And while there was tough talk from both men on Iran, Trump did not repeat earlier threats to “dismantle” the international nuclear deal agreed with Tehran in 2015.

At their first meeting since Trump’s election, both leaders expressed the hope that Arab states could be brought in to helping forge an enduring Israeli-Palestinian agreement that has eluded the region for 70 years, suggesting that those states were more amenable and friendly to Israel because of a shared fight against “radical Islamic terror” and Iranian influence.

Most long-term observers of the region have argued that the chance of Arab states in the Middle East giving up the goal of an sovereign Palestinian state was close to nil.

Neither Trump and Netanyahu, speaking before they had substantive talks, sketched out what the alternative to a two-state solution would look like – a shared non-denominational state of Jews and Arabs, or an enlarged Jewish state with a non-voting Palestinian population living in annexed territory.

The seemingly casual abandonment of a pillar of US Middle East policy caught Palestinians by surprise.

President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to agree to Trump’s call to refrain from settlement-building, and stressed his administration’s commitment to the two-state solution which would “establish [a] Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned that undermining the long-standing strategy was no joke.

“We want to tell those who want to bury and destroy the two-state solution that the real alternative to a Palestinian state living alongside an Israeli one on the 1967 lines is a democratic, secular state where Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together,” he said.

Emerging from a meeting with the speaker of the UK parliament, John Bercow, in Jericho, he added: “Those who believe they can leave the two-state solution and replace it with one state and two systems, I don’t believe they can get away with it. It is impossible. I believe undermining the two-state solution is not a joke and that would be a disaster and tragedy for Israelis and Palestinians.”

But Trump’s comments were seized on by the leader of Israel’s pro-settler Jewish Home party who hailed it as a “new era”. In a tweet, Naftali Bennett said the “Palestinian flag was removed from the staff and replaced with an Israeli flag”.

In a speech in Cairo, UN secretary general António Guterres warned against abandoning the two-state solution. “There is no alternative solution for the situation between the Palestinians and Israelis, other than the solution of establishing two states, and we should do all that can be done to maintain this,” he said.

George W Bush gave the first formal US backing for the idea of a two-state solution in 2002, although the concept had been the unspoken goal of the latter part of the Clinton administration before that.

The 2003 peace “road map” envisaged an independent Palestinian state as part of a final status agreement and successive Israeli prime ministers from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert tacitly or explicitly accepted it. Netanyahu embraced the concept at a speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009.

A former US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, said that the change in US rhetoric might help Netanyahu navigate short-term coalition politics but added, in a tweet, “It will be hard to tap dance there for long” as neither the Palestinians nor the Arab states in the region could accept a “walkback” from the two-state solution.

Trump used the White House stage to put on a show of familial warmth and affability with Netanyahu. Both men patted and rubbed each other’s backs as the Israeli prime minister arrived. Melania Trump had flown from her home in New York to act as hostess for Sara Netanyahu, and the Israeli leader voiced appreciation from the podium of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

The event was a respite for two men under intense pressure at home. Trump leads a dysfunctional administration, having been forced to fire his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, the day before the Israeli prime minister’s arrival.

He faces ever more intense questioning about contacts with Moscow the day after news reports said US intelligence had intercepted conversations between his campaign aides and Russian intelligence officials during the election campaign, which the Kremlin tried to hard to skew in Trump’s favour. The president called on conservative media during the joint press conference who spared him questions on the issue.

Netanyahu is meanwhile facing a corruption investigation and an unruly coalition back home. But on Wednesday he could bask in the praise of a US president who twice promised “a lot of love”. It was a world away from the testy and largely taciturn, relationship he had with Barack Obama.


Julian Borger in Washington, and Peter Beaumont in Jericho

The GuardianTramp

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