WASHINGTON (AP) — As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House, the Trump administration is going back and forth over whether its vision for Middle East peace includes a Palestinian state.
A senior White House official, speaking to reporters before President Donald Trump’s meeting Wednesday with Netanyahu, said Trump is eager to begin facilitating a peace deal between the two sides and hopes to bring them together soon.
It will be up to the Israelis and Palestinians to determine what peace will entail, and that peace, not a two-state solution, is the goal, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the leaders’ session before it took place and spoke on condition of anonymity.
State Department officials said they were not aware of any policy shift on the desirability of an agreement establishing an independent Palestine side-by-side with Israel — long the bedrock of U.S. policy in the region.
Three officials said the department was seeking clarification from the White House, which came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was having dinner with Netanyahu on Tuesday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
On Wednesday, another White House official wouldn’t clarify if the two-state solution was indeed being abandoned. Instead, the official said peace is “our primary focus” and all options were on the table. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly ahead of the talks and spoke on condition anonymity.
It was not clear if the White House had intended to declare a major shift in policy during the hastily arranged briefing Tuesday night.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were greeted Wednesday by Trump and first lady Melania, who welcomed them from the White House’s South Lawn entrance.
The two leaders planned a news conference before convening for meetings and a working lunch. The prime minister was expected then to Capitol Hill for meetings with lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
CIA chief Mike Pompeo secretly held talks in the West Bank with Mahmoud Abbas, in what was the first high-level meeting between the Palestinian leader and an administration official.
Two senior Palestinian officials said the meeting took place Tuesday at Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters about the meeting, which had not been announced. The White House declined to comment.
For decades, the U.S. position has been that Israelis and Palestinians must work through direct negotiations to establish two states living side by side and at peace. All serious peace negotiations in that time have assumed that the two-state solution was the basis for an end to the conflict.
Trump takes pride in his deal-making skills and said during his campaign that he’d love the challenge of negotiating a Mideast agreement. He has appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead the effort.
The White House official said the visit was meant to mark a new, closer relationship between Israel and the United States, an alliance that came under strain under President Barack Obama.
Trump and Netanyahu were likely to discuss peace efforts as well as expanded Israeli settlements, Iran and Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The latter would signal U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that would infuriate Palestinians. They claim the eastern sector of the city, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as their capital.
American presidents have struck a delicate balance in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stressing the close U.S. friendship with Israel and lavishing the Jewish state with bountiful aid. But recent presidents also have called out Israel for actions seen as undermining peace efforts, such as expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Trump told The Associated Press during his campaign that he wanted to be “very neutral” and try to get both sides together. But his tone became decidedly more pro-Israel as the campaign progressed. He has spoken disparagingly of Palestinians, saying they have been “taken over” by or are condoning militant groups. Some of his top aides challenge the legitimacy of Palestinian demands for a state.
After repeatedly clashing with Obama for eight years, capped by a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, Netanyahu has seemed pleased by Trump’s arrival. Trump slammed Obama’s decision to abstain from the U.N. vote in December, saying Israel was treated “very, very unfairly.”
Now in office, however, Trump has been forced to re-evaluate and revisit his position on a number of issues, including those relating to Israel.
After initially greeting Israel’s settlement announcements with a shrug, Trump appears to be having second thoughts. In an interview with a pro-Netanyahu Israeli daily last Friday, Trump said, “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”