Trump and Netanyahu get closer as two-state solution grows more remote
President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House on Wednesday for their first sit-down, and despite the controversies dogging both men — the Trump administration’s and Russia, a possible indictment of Netanyahu — the two leaders were all smiles and handshakes.
Netanyahu in particular had reason to be happy.
Trump’s press conference with the Israeli leader came a day after the White House announced a policy shift that Netanyahu can claim as a victory back home: the abandonment of the long-standing U.S. commitment to a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition has repeatedly demanded that the prime minister abandon talk of a Palestinian state.
At the press conference before their private meeting, Trump and Netanyahu vowed to put the U.S.-Israel alliance on firmer footing after eight years of policy clashes with the Obama administration, which inked the Iran nuclear deal, regularly challenged Israeli settlement building, and pushed for a Palestinian state.
“Our alliance has been remarkably strong,” Netanyahu told Trump. “But under your leadership, I’m confident it will get even stronger.”
The two men also appear to be on the same page when it comes to Iran. The Trump administration recently vowed to put the country “on notice” by keeping a close eye on Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal and responding forcefully to Iranian support for groups that oppose the U.S. and Israel.
The leaders’ shared agenda has buoyed those who were worried about Trump’s statements last week urging Israel to pull back from unfettered settlement expansion. Trump repeated the sentiment at the press conference, asking Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” Netanyahu did not publicly say whether he would agree to that, though he did say Israel and the U.S. would come to an understanding.
The Trump administration has demurred on what they will suggest as a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. On Tuesday night, a White House official told reporters the U.S. would not “impose” Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that it’s up to the parties to decide what they want. Trump echoed those statements, and said whether it’s one state or two states, the U.S. would support whatever deal the parties agree to.
That’s a break with decades of U.S. policy calling for a two-state solution to the conflict.
Mort Klein, the president of pro-Israel group Zionist Organization of America, said he “couldn’t be more pleased that we finally have a clear-thinking president of the United States who understands that establishing a Hamas-Fatah Palestinian state will establish another terror state in the Middle East.”
Palestinian officials, meanwhile, were not happy with the White House’s statements.
“If the Trump administration rejects this policy, it would be destroying the chances for peace and undermining American interests, standing, and credibility abroad,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee.
U.S. officials have anonymously floated what they see as a potential alternative idea for Middle East peace: an alliance between Israel and Gulf Arab states regarding Iran, which would then lead to a grand bargain of peace throughout the region, including with the Palestinians. In recent years, and especially after the Obama administration signed a nuclear deal with Iran, Gulf Arab states and Israel have tacitly cooperated on their shared agenda of beefing up regional capabilities against Iran.
Netanyahu and Trump both said they are hopeful about such a strategy, but not everyone shares their optimism.
“The main reason it can’t work now is [the Trump administration hasn’t] clearly identified the end game, other than tactically getting all sides to cooperate in terms of confronting Iran,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership. “They’re talking about a regional peace — so what is the end game? What does regional peace look like without a two-state solution? And that they haven’t clarified.”
While U.S. officials pursue that, Trump and Netanyahu will continue to talk tough on Iran. At the press conference, Trump called the Iran agreement “one of the worst deals ever made” and vowed to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But both Trump and Netanyahu resisted calling for the agreement to be scrapped entirely.
Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian-American Council, said that Israel is no longer worried about a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. Both the U.S. and Israel have agreed to confront Iran, and the U.S. continues to support Gulf Arab states in their proxy wars against Iranian-backed groups in Yemen and Syria while warning Iran it will punish any violations of the nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration. In addition, the Trump administration has announced new sanctions on Iran for the country’s missile program.
But Parsi said ramping up the pressure on Iran carries risks.
“There is a significant chance,” he said, “that the administration will continue on a very, very aggressive path that does have the likelihood of bringing the U.S. and Iran into a military confrontation.”
Alex Kane is a journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties.