Trump Chides Israeli Settlements, Dithers on Palestinian Statehood

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump held a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the Israel-U.S. alliance and the national security challenges it faces.

Though both men reiterated their country’s support of the relationship, the leaders were faced with questions from reporters about the increase of Israeli settlements in Palestinian occupied territory and possible peace agreements.

Israel is a crucial U.S. ally in the Middle East, a point both men emphasized.  Still, the Israel-Palestine conflict is the constant thorn in that relationship, and the expansion of Israeli settlements is a major point of contention in the international community.

“The issue of settlements is not the core of the conflict,” Netanyahu said during the press conference. “It is an issue but not the main problem.”

But the Palestinians, and much of the rest of the world, see Israeli presence on the West Bank as one of the key obstacles blocking peace in the Middle East.

“They are a potential hindrance to achieving a two-state solution,” Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution said. “They inflame the conflict to a certain degree.”

President Trump told Prime Minister Netanyahu that he’d like to see Israel “hold off on settlements for a little bit” during the press conference. “We’ll work something out, but I would like to see a deal be made,” he added.

“Let’s try it,” the prime minister replied, to which Trump said, “Doesn’t sound too optimistic, but he’s a good negotiator.”

Later, the prime minister said the leaders would discuss settlements during their private meeting after the press conference, adding that he hoped they could “arrive to an understanding, so we don’t keep bumping into each other.”

The White House policy on settlements is that there is no set policy. It was outlined by a Feb. 2 press release, saying, “The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity.”

“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” the statement continued, “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

In December, the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The U.S, under President Barack Obama’s directive, abstained from voting; the U.S. typically vetoes any U.N. resolutions critical of Israel.

The then president-elect criticized the U.S.’s abstention on Twitter, writing, “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with total disdain and disrespect.”

Despite the president’s comments at the joint press conference, it is widely expected that Trump will be more supportive of Israeli settlement expansion than Obama.

“Trump equivocated a lot in the beginning,” Sachs said. “It seemed to be that Trump would give a free hand to Israel on settlement construction. His nominee for ambassador to Israel is an ardent supporter of settlements, has contributed as an individual to settlements.”

Since Trump’s inauguration 28 days ago, the rate of settlement approvals has increased dramatically. On Feb. 7, Israel’s parliament passed a controversial law that retroactively legalizes illegally constructed settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Sachs’ guess is that this “first flurry of construction is sort of test on where Trump will be” on settlements. The president’s comments today, Sachs said, shows that Trump is “slightly less enthusiastic” about them and that there will not be “a free hand” that many hardliner Israelis would like to see.

This race to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank could shut out any peace deal that ends in side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states. Breaking with decades-old U.S. policy, Trump indicated he was open to a one-state solution at Wednesday’s press conference.

“I’m looking at two-state and one-state—and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said . “I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be 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 best.”

“It is the parties themselves that must negotiate an agreement. Both sides will have to make compromises,” President Trump said, turning to Netanyahu, “You know that right?”

For his part, though Netanyahu repeated Israel’s “two prerequisites for peace”—the recognition of an Israeli state and overriding Israeli security in the region—he did not reiterate his past commitment to a two-state solution.

“Instead of looking at labels,” the Israel prime minister said, “I’m looking at substance.”

Still, Sachs said, “Labels do matter.” He found it interesting that Netanyahu did not reiterate his 2009 endorsement of a Palestinian state.

Sachs called it a “fuzzying” of the Israel’s policy on the conflict.

“It was for domestic consumption,” Sachs said. “He was trying to stave off criticism from his right [in Israel]. He scored points on the right, but it cost him in diplomatic terms.”

“Whatever [Netanyahu] is talking about,” Sachs added, “is less than what Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is demanding.”

A one-state solution, according to Sachs, is not a solution at all, despite Trump’s willingness to consider it as a viable option for peace.

“A one state path would look a lot like what we have now, just a lot worse,” Sachs said. “It is institutionalizing the conflict.”

Even talking about the possibility of a one-state solution is dangerous, Sachs said, because “it gives people the false belief that there are other realistic peaceful resolutions to what is a difficult and complex problem.”