Jerusalem (AFP) – Donald Trump’s shelving of the decades-long goal of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict excited Israelis and alarmed the international community Thursday, though an official appeared to temper his comments.
In the first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since his inauguration, Trump on Wednesday broke with international consensus and decades of US policy insisting on a future that included an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like,” Trump said. “I can live with either one.”
The two-state solution has long been the cornerstone of US and international policy and the seeming shift met with hostility from other world powers Thursday.
The United Nations said there had been no change in its policy.
“The two-state solution remains the only way to achieve the legitimate national aspirations of both peoples,” UN envoy for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault labelled the US position “confusing” and reiterated his government’s support for two states.
“A possible Palestinian state will also be a guarantee for the security of Israel,” he added.
Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit said no alternative to two states would be acceptable.
Perhaps seeking to clarify the US’s position, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters they were “absolutely” committed to two states.
– US ‘thinking out-of-the-box’ –
“We absolutely support a two-state solution, but we are thinking out-of-the-box as well,” Haley said following a Security Council meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In Israel, ministers in Israel’s right-wing government hailed what they said was a historic statement by Trump.
“The Palestinian flag has come down from the mast and the Israeli flag has taken its place,” far-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett said.
Science Minister Ofir Akunis hailed “the end of a dangerous and erroneous idea: the creation of a Palestinian terrorist state.”
In contrast to international powers, the Palestinian leadership publicly tried to downplay the issue.
The foreign ministry said it was too early to talk about Israel and US perspectives aligning, while Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said his government was “ready to deal positively” with the White House.
Hossam Zomlot, a special adviser to Abbas, said the two-state solution was still their preferred option.
“What we retain is that Trump says he wants peace,” Zomlot said, adding Israel sought an “apartheid state”.
Trump’s controversial pick for ambassador to Israel, longtime settlement supporter David Friedman, appeared at a confirmation hearing at the Senate foreign relations committee Thursday.
Friedman, a 58-year-old Jewish American bankruptcy lawyer who has worked for Trump’s property empire, expressed “skepticism” about the two-state solution over what he perceived as Palestinian “unwillingness to renounce terror and accept Israel as a Jewish state”.
Trump and Abbas have never spoken and officials have quietly fretted about being frozen out.
On Tuesday, however, CIA chief Mike Pompeo held talks with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian officials said, the most senior figure to meet with him since Trump’s inauguration.
– ‘Weak’ position –
The UN envoy for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said the two-state solution remains “the only way” to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Jihad Harb, a Palestinian political scientist, said the leadership was being cautious due to its “weak position” and its past failure to follow through on threats.
“The Palestinian leadership has failed to open a dialogue with the US administration. It is afraid that an escalation (in rhetoric) at this stage could ruin any possibility of dialogue,” he said.
The leadership, Harb added, has limited options if Trump continues to freeze them out.
Ghassan Khatib, a professor and former Palestinian official, agreed Trump was “very bad for the Palestinians”.
What a one-state solution would look like in reality remains unclear.
Michael Oren, deputy minister in Netanyahu’s office, implied Thursday there was support for what has been dubbed by Israeli media as the “state minus” approach, meaning levels of autonomy for Palestinian areas in the West Bank but never full independence.
“(It) may not conform to what we know as a two-state solution but would enable the Palestinians to lead their lives in prosperity and security,” Oren said.
Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the Trump administration appeared to have “zero clarity” on the meaning of a one-state solution, leaving the Israelis in prime position to dictate terms.
“Essentially Netanyahu was presented with the choice between one state and two,” he said. “But he is in favour of one state and a half.”