WASHINGTON - During his first press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump bucked American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by declining to endorse the two-state solution. The president also called on the Israeli premier to restrain settlement construction and reiterated his intention to achieve a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as a wider agreement between Israel and the Arab world.
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About 100 reporters from American, Israeli and international news outlets gathered in the packed East Room of the White House for the press conference, which centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The U.S. president stressed that he would like Israel to check settlement construction. Turning to Netanyahu, Trump said: "I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit."
Netanyahu sidestepped Trump's remarks on settlement construction, stressing that he intends to reach understandings with the president to avoid friction between Israel and the U.S. The settlements are "not the core of the conflict," Netanyahu said, adding that the issue ought to be solved in the context of peace negotiations.
Both Trump and Netanyahu avoided making an endorsement of the two-state solution. The American president surprisingly said that he would not rule out a one-state solution, and added that he is interested in a regional peace push involving several Arab countries, as a way toward a more comprehensive peace agreement.
"I am looking at two states or one state, and I like the one that both parties like," Trump told reporters at the White House, though he noted that "the two states look like it could be the easier of the two."
The U.S. officially endorsed the two-state solution in 2001 during the George W. Bush administration, and it has been one of the pillars of its Mideast policy since. Trump's remarks were foreshadowed on Tuesday, when a senior U.S. official said that Middle East peace is high on his agenda, though not necessarily through the two-state solution. "It's not for us to impose that vision," the official said, adding that the term "two-state solution" has not been particularly well defined.
At the press conference, Trump stressed the importance of achieving a peace deal, while needling Netanyahu on the importance on making concessions to the Palestinians. "The United States will encourage a peace, and really a great peace deal, but it is the parties themselves who must directly negotiate such an agreement," Trump said.
The Israelis "are going to have to show some flexibility," Trump said. "Both Israel and the Palestinians will have to make compromises," Trump said. Turning to Netanyahu, Trump added: "You know that, right?"
However, the president stressed that the Arab world's involvement in the peace process might make it easier for both sides to make these concessions. "I think they want to make a deal," Trump said of Israel. "Palestinians have to get rid of the hate they're taught from a very young age. They’ll have to acknowledge Israel and I think they’re going to be willing to do that also."
"We’re going to have other players on a very high level and I think that will make it easier," he said.
Asked about his promise to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump answered that he would be happy to see that happen, but did not mention when such a move would take place.
On his part, Netanyahu avoided explicitly supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, but clarified that he was not going back on the principles he laid out in his Bar-Ilan speech. In the 2009 speech, the premier said that he would support the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.
Netanyahu placed the blame for the stalled peace process on the Palestinians and reiterated his stance that the Palestinians must first recognize Israel as a Jewish state for peace to be achieved. "Persistent rejectionism is the reason we don’t have peace," Netanyahu said.
The Israeli premier also accused the Palestinians of calling for the destruction of Israel and of denying Jews' link to the land of Israel. "The Chinese are called Chinese because they're from China, Jews are called Jews because they come from Judea," he said.
"If anybody believes that I, as the prime minister of Israel, responsible for its security, would walk into a Palestinian terrorist state, they are gravely mistaken," Netanyahu said.
Both Netanyahu and Trump appeared to espouse a regional approach to peacemaking in the Middle East. "For the first time in my life time and my lifetime, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy but as an ally," Netanyahu said.
Wednesday's meeting was the first between the two leaders. Trump and his wife Melania stepped outside of the White House to greet Netanyahu and his wife Sara. The four smiled at the cameras, before Trump and Netanyahu walked arm in arm into the White House.
The warm greetings were echoed in the remarks by both leaders at the press conference. Opening his remarks by stressing the shared values of the two countries, Trump went on to attack the UN for its "unfair" treatment of Israel and complimented Netanyahu himself. "Bibi and I have known each other for a long time - smart man, great negotiator," Trump said.
"We will never forget what the Jewish people endured," Trump said, adding: "Your perseverance... is truly inspirational." On the UN, Trump said: "We reject unfair and one-sided actions against Israel in the United Nations which has treated Israel in my opinion, very very unfairly."
For his part, Netanyahu lauded the U.S.-Israel relationship. "Our alliance has been remarkably strong, but under your leadership I’m sure it will get remarkably stronger," Netanyahu said.
"I welcome your forthright call that Israel is treated fairly," Netanyahu said. "Our alliance is based on a deep bond of common values, interests that are under threat by one force; radical Islamic terrorists."
"Under your leadership I believe we can reverse the rising tide of radical Islam. In this task, Israel stands with you and I stand with you," Netanyahu added.
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Jewish Democrat who represents a congressional district in Florida, hailed Trump's remark that a peace agreement can only be made through direct negotiations, but added that the goal should remain "two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security."
Amir Tibon contributed to this report.