Aside from Trump’s noncommittal statement on his support, or lack thereof, for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the press conference in Washington, DC further cemented the tight relationship between the new US administration and the Israeli government, nonetheless revealing some disagreements between the two heads of state.
Two-state solution up for debate
The most notable moment of the half-hour long press conference was Trump’s response to a question regarding his administration’s position on the two-state solution, a day after a US official said that the country was not necessarily committed to policy as the sole way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said, eliciting laughter from Netanyahu. “I can live with either one.”
“I thought for a while that the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly if Bibi, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best,” Trump added referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, sidestepped questions about his position on the two-state solution, saying that he wanted “to deal with substance…rather than deal with labels.”
Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called for peace talks without preconditions, restated his government’s two prerequisites for negotiations: Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and that “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area West of the Jordan river.”
“Otherwise we will get another radical Islamic terrorist state in the Palestinian areas exploding the peace,” Netanyahu said, in one of a number of statements during the press conference in which he equated Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation — carried out by both secular nationalist and Islamist movements — with extremist Islamist groups operating elsewhere.
Netanyahu went on to blame Palestinians’ so-called rejection of such conditions for the ongoing conflict.
“This persistent rejectionism is the reason we don’t have peace,” he said.
However, Palestinian officials have repeatedly recognized Israel’s right to exist, and the Palestinian Authority has carried out security coordination with Israel over the years.
Netanyahu did not elaborate on how Israel’s insistence on maintaining “security control” in the West Bank would differ from the nearly 50-year military occupation of the Palestinian territory.
Netanyahu has in the past proclaimed that he would not be willing to enter negotiations with Palestinians which would grant them an autonomous sovereign state, notoriously saying that “what I am prepared to give the Palestinians is not exactly a state with every authority but rather a ‘state-minus.’”
While members of the international community have rested the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the discontinuation of illegal Israeli settlements and the establishment of a two-state solution, a growing number of Palestinian activists have criticized the two-state solution as unsustainable and unlikely to bring durable peace given the existing political context, proposing instead a binational state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.
Differing views on peace negotiations
Trump maintained an optimistic view of his administration’s ability to obtain a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians, emphasizing his support for bilateral negotiations.
“Peace requires that nations uphold the dignity of human life and be a voice for all of those who are endangered and forgotten,” Trump said, without seemingly including Palestinians or citizens of countries included in his contested “Muslim ban” in this statement.
“The United States will encourage a peace, and really a great peace deal, and we will be working on it very, very diligently,” the US president said. “But it is the parties themselves who must directly negotiate such an agreement.”
“(Netanyahu is) a smart man, great negotiator, and I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room might understand. That’s a possibility,” Trump said, turning to the Israeli prime minister, who replied: “Let’s try.”
“He doesn’t sound too optimistic, but that’s okay,” Trump added, to laughter from the audience.
Netanyahu, however, seemed to take Trump off guard by bringing up the possibility of involving other Middle Eastern countries in negotiations, despite having repeatedly called for bilateral talks in the past.
“For the first time in my lifetime, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but increasingly as an ally,” he said.
“I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach, from involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu added.
Trump’s response raised questions about whether the US president had been made aware of the fact that Israel was considering such multilateral negotiations.
“We have been discussing that, and it’s something that hasn’t been discussed before, and it’s actually a much bigger deal, much more important deal in a sense, it would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory,” Trump said. “I didn’t know you were going to be mentioning that, but now that you did I think it’s a terrific thing.”
Following Netanyahu’s unexpected statement, Trump doubled down on an earlier comment calling for both Israelis and Palestinians to compromise.
“I think that the Israelis are going to have to show some flexibility, which is hard to do. They’ll have to show the fact that they really want to make a deal,” he said. “I think our new concept that we’ve actually been discussing for a while is something that allows them to show more flexibility than they have in the past because you have a lot bigger canvas to play with. I think they’ll do that.”
Apparent tensions on illegal settlement expansion
On the issue of illegal settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territory, Trump appeared to backtrack on his previously emphatic support, as the two leaders seemed at odds on the matter.
“As far as settlements, I’d like to see you to hold back on settlements for a little bit,” he told Netanyahu.
The prime minister, however, reiterated his government’s belief that “the issue of settlements is not the core of the conflict, nor does it really drive the conflict” — despite the international community’s condemnation of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as being one of the main hurdles to the establishment of a two-state solution.
“I think that we also are going to speak about it, President Trump and I, so we can arrive at an understanding so we don’t keep on bumping into each other all the time on this issue.”
Netanyahu went on to accuse Palestinians of denying Jews’ ties to the Palestinian territory land currently under Israeli military occupation by opposing settlements.
“Jews are called Jews because they come from Judea,” he said, using the Israeli term for part of the West Bank. “Jews are not foreign colonialists in Judea.”
The Israeli government has welcomed Trump’s presidency, as right-wing politicians believe they will more easily advance plans to expand Israeli settlements since Trump came forward as a vocal supporter of Israel and expressed opposition to a recent UNSC resolution that harshly condemned illegal settlements.
However Trump has recently made statements critical of settlements following the passage in Israel’s parliament of the “Regularization law,” which could grant official Israeli governmental recognition to more than a dozen illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank established on private Palestinian lands.
Both opponents and supporters of the bill have said the legislation would pave the way to annexing the majority of the West Bank.
Trump told an Israeli newspaper on Friday that, “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”
Reiterating ‘unbreakable’ US-Israeli bond
In spite of some of their disagreements, both Netanyahu and Trump nonetheless reaffirmed the strength of their two countries’ relationship, with Trump hailing the “unbreakable bond with our cherished ally.”
Trump saluted Israel as an “open democracy in the face of violence,” despite the country having been accused by critics of committing gross human rights violations and wars crimes, and of implementing an apartheid system between Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens in both Israel and the occupied territory.
“Israel is a symbol to the world of resilience in the face of oppression. I can think of no state that’s gone through what they’ve gone, and survival in the face of genocide,” Trump added, in reference to the Holocaust perpetrated by the German Nazi regime against Jews prior to the creation of a state of Israel.
Trump also noted that the United States’ military aid to Israel was “at an all-time high” — referring to a $38 billion military aid package signed by former US President Barack Obama back in September. The deal represents the largest foreign aid package given to a country in US history.
When asked by a reporter about his controversial pledge to move the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump maintained his support for the move, while remaining elusive about the timeline or likelihood of such an event.
“I’d love to see that happen, we are looking at it very, very strongly and with great care, and we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, said that he “deeply” valued Trump’s “friendship to me and to the state of Israel.”
“I certainly welcome your forthright call to ensure that Israel is treated fairly in international forums and that the slander and boycotts of Israel are resisted mightily by the power and moral position of the United States of America,” he added.