Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu's joint press conference on Wednesday was everything we expected it to be – and then, some more. It was full of headlines, smiles, awkward moments, and even a little bit of tension. For many who watched it live, the press conference left a sense of confusion that was then further reinforced by the contradicting conclusions drawn from it by various media outlets.
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Some headlines declared that Trump had just broken with "decades of U.S. policy" by supposedly "abandoning the two-state solution." Others focused on how strongly Trump emphasized his wish to see a Middle East peace deal, to the point of directly telling Netanyahu that Israel will have to make compromises and show flexibility, and asking the Prime Minister – "you get that, right?"
In order to try and make sense of it all, here are five key questions that have dominated the coverage of the press conference – and our humble attempt to answer them.
1. What exactly did Trump say about the two-state solution?
The American president didn't mention the two-state solution in his prepared remarks, and instead spoke only in general terms about a peace deal that will demand "flexibility" and "compromises" from both sides. When he was specifically asked about the two-state solution, Trump said he doesn’t rule out any option – one state, two states or something else – as long as it will be accepted by both parties, Israel and the Palestinians. This answer was in line with what different administration officials have said recently, that Trump wants a peace deal, and would let the two sides hash out its' terms.
Trump also told Netanyahu that Israel would have to "hold back a bit" on settlements, implying that he realizes there is a territorial dimension to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His tone and words on settlements weren't nearly as harsh as those of his predecessor, Barack Obama, yet he also made clear that those in Israel who might have expected a "blank check" from Trump on settlement building, will probably be disappointed.
2. What does Trump's statement mean?
The answer to this question is open to different interpretations. In Israel, some right-wing politicians and pundits openly celebrated Trump's words, and presented them as official death certificate of the two-state solution. Over the ocean in the U.S., the New York Times took Trump's openness to a one-state solution as the main take-away from the press conference.
Others, however, saw this statement as simply stating that the terms of the peace deal will have to be negotiated by both parties, and the United States will not impose terms on the parties. It should be noted that the first American president to formally endorse a two-state solution was George W. Bush, who did it only in the year 2001. Bush, and Obama after him, defined that solution as a vital American interest. While some senior members of the Trump administration – such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis – agree with that characterization, Trump seems to think differently. For him, the vital interest is a peace agreement, preferably one that involves not just Israel and the Palestinians, but also other Arab states.
If that peace deal will only be possible in the framework of a two-state solution, so be it. If there are other ways to get it, Trump is also open to examining them. The important thing from his point of view is an agreement that both sides can accept. Up until now, after decades of negotiations, no other formula has been accepted by either the Palestinians or the Arab world. It remains to be seen if Trump's statement will change that, or if in a few months, he will say that this is the only solution that both sides accept.
David Makovsky, a former peace negotiator and the director of the Middle East Peace Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote that to him, Trump's statement on two states versus one, basically meant that "the United States can't want a deal more than the two parties."
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3. So what does Trump's vision for peace actually include?
Trump mentioned a number of ideas in the press conference. First of all, he states the obvious, which is that both sides will have to make concessions and show flexibility. With regards to Israel, he mentioned holding back on settlements. With regards to the Palestinians, his language was more forceful – he said they will need to stop incitement against Israel, including in their schools. Trump talked about "stopping the hate" towards Israelis and Jews. Aside from that, he said he wanted to get a regional peace deal with the involvement of other Arab countries in the region.
One key statement by Trump, which didn't receive a lot of media attention, was that he believed a regional agreement would allow Israel "to show more flexibility" than it has shown in the past. This quote actually fits with attempts by previous U.S. administrations – from Clinton to Obama – to get the Arab world involved in peace negotiations, so that Israel will receive greater diplomatic, economic and security benefits for any territorial compromises it makes. Trump is not the first U.S. president to adopt this line of thinking, but could still be the first one to actually make it work towards a peace deal.
4. Did Netanyahu walk back on his support of the two-state solution?
Unlike Trump, who left much room for debate over the exact meaning of his words, Netanyahu was more clear in his statements, and made a big step towards rejecting the two-state solution, without explicitly saying it. Netanyahu said that in his vision of a peace agreement, Israel will have to retain control over the entire land to the west of the Jordan River. What this means, in effect, is that the future Palestinian state – if there ever is one – will remain under Israeli control, and would be able to claim that it is in effect occupied by Israel.
In the past, Netanyahu insisted publicly on two conditions for peace – Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and that the Palestinian state will be de-militarized, so it can't attack Israel militarily. He also demanded in recent negotiation rounds that Israel will be able to keep a military presence in the Jordan Valley – the area separating the main Palestinian population centers in the West Bank from Jordan – for decades. And yet, the phrase he used at the press conference, "Israeli control," takes his security demands a step further.
Netanyahu also said that he and Palestinian president Abbas did not agree on one definition of two states. Indeed, there is probably no Palestinian leader who will agree to call a Palestinian entity under Israeli military control, a "state." This point of disagreement was one of the main reasons that John Kerry's attempt to forge a peace agreement failed in 2014. It remains to be seen how Trump, the "Art of the Deal" president, will deal with it.
5. Was this press conference good or bad for Netanyahu?
Again, it depends who you're asking. The jubilation on the Israeli right-wing certainly serves Netanyahu's short-term political needs, and there is no doubt that even from a center-left perspective, Trump's words were music to Netanyahu's ears when compared to some of what President Obama had told him over the last eight years.
On the other hand, the moment when Trump mentioned Israeli concessions and then directly approached Netanyahu and asked him – "you realize that, right?" – could spell trouble down the road for a Prime Minister whose coalition is dependent on right-wing parties that oppose any form of compromise with the Palestinians. One right-wing Israeli figure I talked with added that Trump's presentation of only two options – a one state solution or a two-state solution – is worrying, since the mainstream of the Israeli right-wing, is against both options, and preferred other ideas (for example, a Palestinian autonomy, or a Palestinian state in Jordan.)
If Israel has to choose between two states or one state, it most likely would still choose the first option, and not allow itself to become a bi-national state where almost half the population is under the poverty line. Trump said he would be fine with such a reality, but Netanyahu probably wouldn't be. That leaves a burden on him to offer other ideas – and to try and convince Trump that they can be accepted by the Palestinians and the Arab world.