WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the United States would no longer insist on a Palestinian state as part of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, backing away from a policy that has underpinned the U.S. role in Middle East peacemaking since the Clinton administration.
“I’m looking at two states and one state,” Trump said, appearing in a joint news conference at the White House with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. “I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
Trump’s comments were a striking departure from decades of diplomatic orthodoxy, and they raised a host of thorny questions about the viability of his position. The Palestinians are highly unlikely to accept anything short of a sovereign state, and a single Israeli state encompassing the Palestinians would either become undemocratic or no longer Jewish, given the faster growth rate of the Arab population.
Trump did not address these dynamics, preferring to focus on his confidence that he could produce a breakthrough agreement.
“I think we’re going to make a deal,” Trump said, describing that as personally important to him. “It might be a better deal than people in this room understand.”
Netanyahu embraced Trump’s words, saying he preferred to deal with “substance” rather than “labels” in negotiating with the Palestinians.
He noted that the concept of the two-state solution meant different things to different people in the region. And he said the Palestinians had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
Trump did tell Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlement construction in the West Bank.
“As with any successful negotiation, both sides will have to make compromises,” he said, turning to Netanyahu. “You know that, right?”
Trump also used the news conference to again lash out at the nation’s intelligence agencies, saying that his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, had been brought down by illegal leaks to the media. His comments came on a day of new disclosures about Flynn’s dealings with Russia during and after the presidential campaign. Trump demanded his security adviser’s resignation, officials said.
“From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked,” Trump said. “It’s a criminal action, criminal act, and it’s been going on for a long time before me, but now it’s really going on. And people are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.”
Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, have been exploring an approach called the outside-in strategy, enlisting Arab states in the region that already have found common cause with Israel against their mutual enemy Iran to help broker a settlement with the Palestinians. But it is not at all clear that Palestinians would ever accept an arrangement that did not leave them with a state of their own.
Until now, Trump’s team has largely avoided conversations with Palestinian leaders. But Mike Pompeo, CIA director, met with Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, in Ramallah in the West Bank on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. Bill Clinton was the first president to endorse a two-state solution, saying in a speech in January 2001, just two weeks before leaving office, that the conflict would never be settled without “a sovereign, viable Palestinian state.”
His successor, George W. Bush, picked that up later that year, becoming the first president to make it official U.S. policy. Obama considered a two-state solution the unquestionable bedrock of Washington’s approach to the region.
But momentum for the idea of side-by-side states has ebbed not just in Washington but also in the region, where many Israelis and Palestinians have given up hope or changed their minds about the concept.
Netanyahu arrives at a tumultuous time at the White House, just two days after Trump forced out Flynn, for withholding the truth about a conversation with Russia’s ambassador.
Netanyhau lost probably his most important ally against Iran with Flynn’s departure. During last year’s campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran as a terrible deal, but his administration has indicated that it does not intend to rip it up, at least not immediately, even as it imposes new sanctions on Tehran over its recent ballistic missile tests.
Netanyahu wants to ensure that if the deal is not scrapped, it is enforced rigorously, a goal he should find much sympathy for in the White House. But Flynn’s departure could mean that the conversations between Netanyahu and Trump focus more on making peace with the Palestinians than the prime minister would prefer.
Netanyahu has looked forward to Trump’s ascension, the first time in four terms as prime minister that he has had a Republican president as a partner. After years of tension with Obama, who pressed Israel to make more concessions for peace, Netanyahu anticipated vigorous support from the new president.
But as Israel began announcing thousands of more houses in the West Bank in the weeks after Trump’s inauguration, the new president modulated his posture. He told an Israeli newspaper last week that more Israeli settlements in the West Bank “don’t help the process” and that he did not believe that “going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” He also backed away from his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, saying that it is “not an easy decision” and “we will see what happens.”
The comments surprised some in Israel but could also be helpful to Netanyahu, who could use them to fend off pressure from pro-settlement leaders on his right who have been pushing him to take more assertive moves.
Still, if Netanyahu viewed Trump’s arrival as license to do as he pleased without U.S. interference, he may be surprised that the new president seems inclined to make a serious investment in forging a peace deal.
Trump’s assignment to Kushner to focus on the matter has been taken as a sign of determination. Although he has no experience as a diplomat, Kushner has what other negotiators in the past have not had: the complete trust of the president.
“Authority matters,” said Dennis Ross, who served multiple presidents as a Middle East negotiator. “People in the region can smell it when negotiators don’t have it, and I think having the authority counts a lot.”