Trump breaks with old Middle East policy — and campaign positions

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON — With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, President Trump on Wednesday dropped the decades-old U.S. position that Middle East peace requires the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The unpredictable commander in chief also watered down campaign-trail pledges to move America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and dismantle the Iran nuclear deal.

“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. I can live with either one,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Netanyahu in the White House’s East Room. “I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

The so-called two-state solution, under which Palestinians would get their own state, has underpinned Middle East peace efforts for a generation. In January 2001, Bill Clinton became the first sitting U.S. president to explicitly declare that “there can be no genuine resolution to the conflict” without one. Nine months later, George W. Bush became the first to make this official U.S. policy. Since taking office, Trump and his top aides had omitted it from public statements. The Palestinians are unlikely to accept a peace agreement that does not give them an independent state.

While the remarks appeared to delight Netanyahu, Trump seemed to surprise his guest by calling publicly for a pause in Israeli home building on Palestinian land. “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” the president said.

Netanyahu said he and Trump would discuss the matter privately “so we can arrive at an understanding so we don’t keep on bumping into each other all the time on this issue.”

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint news conference at the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Asked about moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump said he would “love to see that happen” but was taking “great care” to study the question. “We’ll see what happens, OK?”

Moving the diplomatic mission would bolster Israel’s claims on the city as its undivided capital while eroding Palestinians’ hopes of making the eastern part of the city the capital of their future state.

Defense Secretary James Mattis is known not to favor the embassy move, seeing it as an unnecessary provocation that could inflame anti-American sentiment across the Arab world. And a Trump aide recently told Yahoo News that opposition to the embassy move from Jordan’s King Abdullah carried weight with the White House.

Trump also condemned the nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China as “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen” but did not repeat his campaign promise to “dismantle” the arrangement.

“I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing — I mean ever — a nuclear weapon,” the president said.

When it comes to the agreement, congressional Republicans and Democratic Iran hawks appear to have settled on a strategy that calls for strictly enforcing the deal and essentially daring Iran to break it. They also want to impose new sanctions on Tehran over its ballistic-missile program and counter the Islamic republic’s support for extremist groups. The web of sanctions has made it difficult for Iran to reap the benefits of the nuclear deal, because companies have been leery of falling afoul of sanctions linked to other aspects of Tehran’s behavior.

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