February 15, 2017
With Trump facing assaults on all sides over his administration’s alleged links to Russia, he will be happy to be distracted by another meeting with a foreign leader, even if it is the controversial Israeli Prime Minister. Trump prepared to host Benjamin Netanyahu at noon on Wednesday for talks that could shape America’s Middle East policy, as Palestinians warned the White House not to abandon their goal of an independent state.
Ahead of the talks, the WSJ reported that in what may be the latest major US foreign policy U-turn under Trump, the White House said that finding a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians doesn’t have to include an agreement to establish two separate states, marking a dramatic break from decades of U.S. policy. For decades, the idea of creating a Palestine living peacefully alongside Israel has been a bedrock U.S. position, though the last negotiations broke down in 2014. But now the White House position appears to be that peace did not necessarily have to entail Palestinian statehood, and Trump would not try to “dictate” a solution Reuters added.
Netanyahu committed, with conditions, to the two-state goal in a speech in 2009 and has broadly reiterated the aim since. But he has also spoken of a “state minus” option, suggesting he could offer the Palestinians deep-seated autonomy and the trappings of statehood without full sovereignty. Quoting a senior administration official, the WSJ said the Israelis and Palestinians have to agree on what form peace between their countries will take—and that didn’t necessarily include two states.
“A two-state solution that doesn’t bring peace is not a goal that anybody wants to achieve,” the official said. “Peace is the goal, whether it comes in the form of a two-state solution if that’s what the parties want or something else, if that’s what the parties want, we’re going to help them.”
Just like “One China” has been a mainstray of US foreign policy for nearly four decades, “two states for two peoples”, Israelis and Palestinians, has been the official U.S. policy of Democratic and Republican administrations for decades, and was the tenet guiding historic talks at Oslo and Camp David. Most governments and world bodies back that principle as well and it had been embraced by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
The U.S. historically has said it supports direct negotiations between the two sides that would end in a two-state solution. Toward that end, Washington has opposed Israeli construction of settlements in the Palestinian territories.
A spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the White House message, noting that Israel would wait for the meeting between Messrs. Trump and Netanyahu later Wednesday for more clarity on the U.S.’s approach to the conflict.
Meanwhile, as Trump and Netanyahu prepare to meet, a senior Palestinian official disclosed that on Tuesday, CIA director Mike Pompeo held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government in the occupied West Bank. “(It was) the first official meeting with a high-profile member of the American administration since Trump took office,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to disclose details of the discussion.
Palestinians reacted with alarm to the possibility that Washington might ditch its support for an independent Palestinian nation. “If the Trump Administration rejects this policy it would be destroying the chances for peace and undermining American interests, standing and credibility abroad,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in response to the U.S. official’s remarks.
“Accommodating the most extreme and irresponsible elements in Israel and in the White House is no way to make responsible foreign policy,” she said in a statement. Husam Zomlot, strategic adviser to Abbas, said the Palestinians had not received any official indication of a change in the U.S. stance.
Away from the Palestinian Solution, for Netanyahu today’s meeting with Trump will be an opportunity to reset ties after a frequently combative relationship with Democrat Barack Obama. The prime minister, under investigation at home over allegations of abuse of office, spent much of Tuesday huddled with advisers in Washington preparing for the talks. Officials said they wanted no gaps to emerge between U.S. and Israeli thinking during the scheduled two-hour Oval Office meeting. Trump, who has been in office less than four weeks and has already been immersed in problems including the forced resignation of his national security adviser, brings with him an unpredictability that Netanyahu’s staff hope will not impinge on the discussions.
Trump had been relentlessly pro-Israel in his campaign rhetoric, promising to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, backing David Friedman, an ardent supporter of Jewish settlements, as his Israeli envoy and saying that he would not put pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians.
However, as Reuters points out, “that tune, which was has been music to Netanyahu’s ears and to the increasingly restive right-wing within his coalition, has since changed, making Wednesday’s talks critical for clarity.”
Trump appears to have put the embassy move on the backburner, at least for now, after warnings about the potential for regional unrest, including from Jordan’s King Abdullah. And rather than giving Israel free rein on settlements, the White House has said building new ones or expanding existing ones beyond their current borders would not be helpful to peace.
On the issue contentuous topic of settlements, the White House has said building new ones or expanding existing ones beyond their current borders would not be helpful to peace.
That would appear to leave Israel room to build within existing settlements without drawing U.S. condemnation, in what is the sort of gray area the talks are expected to touch on.
Meanwhile, for the Palestinians, and much of the rest of the world, settlements built on occupied land are illegal under international law. Israel disputes that, but faces increasing criticism over the policy from allies, especially after Netanyahu’s announcement in the past three weeks of plans to build 6,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Expect many of the open questions to be addressed later today, even if hope of some resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains very much elusive.