Trump and Netanyahu waver on support for two-state solution in Middle East

KHOU 11's Shern-Min Chow reports

WASHINGTON — President Trump hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Wednesday for a series of meetings intended to "show there is no daylight" between the two leaders on a range of issues.

And that includes the so-called "two-state solution" that has been a hallmark of U.S. policy in the Middle East — and a source of friction between the Netanyahu government and Trump's predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Trump professed to be agnostic on the policy. "So I'm looking at two-state or the one-state," Trump said. "I was thinking for a while that the two-state was looking like the easier of the two."

He concluded that the matter is up to Israel and Palestine to decide. "I'm happy with the one they like best," he said.

The two-state solution calls for a negotiated settlement leading to a Palestinian nation alongside Israel, and it was the U.S. policy under both the Bush and Obama administrations. But with Trump stepping back, Netanyahu reasserted his position that a two-state solution can only happen under two conditions: The new Palestinian state must recognize Israel's legitimacy, and Israel must maintain security control of the West Bank.

And he suggested that the very "two-state" label was a hindrance to progress."Rather than deal with labels, I'd like to deal with substance," Netanyahu said.

Even as the two leaders made a public showing of solidarity, the Trump White House has been slow to distance itself from the policies of his predecessors in a number of areas, including:

► The location of the U.S. embassy. A 1995 law requires the president to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but every president since has invoked a national security waiver to block the move. Trump has signaled that he wants to end that policy, but has moved cautiously in his first weeks. "We're looking at it very, very slowly. We’re looking at it with great care," Trump said. "Great care, believe me, and we'll see what happens."

► The Iran nuclear deal. During the campaign, Trump threatened to "rip up" the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration and five other global powers with Iran to scale down its nuclear program. But even as the Trump administration has leveled new sanctions for Iran's missile tests, Trump has not made any moves to break the Obama-era agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. On Wednesday, Trump called the deal "one of the worst deals I've ever seen."

"I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing, I mean ever, a nuclear weapon," he said.

► Israeli settlements. In an unexpected change in tone this month, the White House responded to continued Israeli settlements in the West Bank with a statement saying those settlements "may not be helpful" in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu downplayed the significance of the issue, but pledged to work with Trump "so we don’t keep on bumping into each other all the time."

The two leaders also discussed counter-terrorism operations in the region. Trump has made defeating the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq the overarching goal of his foreign policy — to the extent that he's been willing to rethink the role of old rivalries and alliances. As the closest U.S. ally in the region, Trump will seek to coordinate anti-terrorism strategy with Israel, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday. "They will discuss ways to advance and strengthen the special relationship between our two countries and stability in the Middle East," he said.

A Middle East peace agreement has eluded U.S. presidents for generations, but Trump — who lacks diplomatic experience but built a real estate empire — has said he thinks he can broker "the ultimate deal." He said Wednesday that he intends to get an earlier start than his predecessors, who mostly waited until their second terms to make it a foreign policy priority.

"As the president has made clear, his administration will work to achieve comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security," Spicer said.

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Other presidents have tried but have run into obstacles. They included the Obama administration, which saw Netanyahu himself as an obstacle, particularly with his support of Israeli settlements on land disputed with the Palestinians. That issue led Obama to tell Jewish leaders that there needed to be "daylight" between U.S. and Israel if he was going to successfully negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu's visit to the Trump White House came at a time of turmoil. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned Monday after Trump and others believed that he misled them about a phone conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Flynn had been a key player in the Trump administration's early overtures to Netanyahu's government. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this month that Flynn's Israeli counterpart and the the chief of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, made a secret visits to Washington during the transition to meet with Flynn.

But the Flynn resignation re-opened questions about the relationship between Trump and aides and the Russians, the subject of investigation by the FBI and congressional committees.

Trump and Netanyau are scheduled to hold a news conference before their meetings and a working lunch.

Netanyahu's visit makes him the fourth foreign leader to pay a call on Trump's White House, following U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in addition to dozens of phone calls Trump has made to world leaders in his first month.

Trump has not spoken to officials with the Palestinian Authority.

(© 2017 KHOU)


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