President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu will formally inaugurate their partnership today in talks that could shape a new approach by Washington that does not emphasize a two-state peace framework for the region.
Such a move, outlined by a U.S. official before the meetings, would mark a sharp contrast to Obama administration policies that strongly supported the two-state formula as the best option for potential peace deals between Israel and Palestinians.
On the U.S. side, the Trump administration seeks a clean break from President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies and try for bold stroke for Israeli-Palestinian peace – what the businessman-turned-president calls “the ultimate deal.”
A White House official told reporters that the United States will not insist on two states as the only outcome for peace.
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s something the two sides have to agree to. It’s not for us to impose that vision,” the official said. “A two-state solution that doesn’t bring peace is not our goal,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the potential U.S. policy change.
While the previous administration did not insist on a two-state solution, it was presented as the best approach. That approach, however, is increasingly out of favor with the Israeli government.
Success hinges on Netanyahu’s cooperation in the near-certain event that Trump asks him to make political or other concessions, the ground on which Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama was irreversibly damaged. It may also depend on Trump’s own reaction if, as participants in past peace efforts said is likely, Netanyahu attempts to get the better of the new U.S. dealmaker in chief.
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu is counting on the Trump administration’s aggressive and skeptical U.S. approach to Iran and the nuclear deal, as well as nearly unqualified support for policies toward the Palestinians that have brought international condemnation. And to his political right at home, an increasingly powerful Israeli political constituency wants carte blanche from the new U.S. administration to turn away from the once-shared U.S.-Israeli goal of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“As the president has made clear, his administration will work to achieve comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday. “The way forward toward that goal will also be discussed.”
Spicer avoided any mention of Palestinian sovereignty or direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians as peers. That subtle change in the public U.S. stance cheers Israeli hard-liners. But Trump has also sent recent signals that Israel should be cautious about settlement building in the West Bank, a likely point of future conflict with Washington.
“There is going to have to be some tough love,” said David Makovsky, a former senior U.S. envoy during the most recent, failed peace push in 2013 and 2014.
As he headed to Washington, Netanyahu characterized his meeting with Trump as “very important” and said he believed the relationship between Israel and the U.S. was “about to get even stronger.”
The longtime Israeli prime minister has made clear that he hopes to focus much of the meeting on Iran, which he considers a threat to Israel’s existence and an increasingly emboldened menace in Syria and elsewhere across the Middle East.
“President Trump and I see eye to eye on the dangers emanating from the region but also on the opportunities,” Netanyahu said as he boarded his flight to Washington. “And we’ll talk about both, as well as upgrading the relations between Israel and the United States in many, many fields.”
Netanyahu will also see Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and members of Congress. He and Trump are scheduled to hold a joint news conference following their meeting Wednesday.
The visit takes place in the unexpected shadow of Michael Flynn’s resignation as Trump’s national security adviser. The resignation occurred Monday night as Netanyahu flew to Washington.
Despite the upheaval and potential scandal surrounding the resignation just three weeks into the Trump administration, Flynn’s absence is unlikely to affect the agenda or U.S. positions. His hawkish voice on Iran reflects Trump’s views, and he was not expected to be a main player in any White House push for a peace agreement.
“For both sides, the primary objective of this meeting is to change the political theater of the relationship,” said former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy Michèle Flournoy. “To change the vibe, the feeling, the perception,” of deep divisions between Israel and its most important ally.
For now, she and other observers said, the inevitable differences will be mentioned as little as possible. “It’s all kumbaya,” Flournoy said.
In the short term, the veteran Israeli leader must show he can deliver on the expectations of firm U.S. support for standing against Iran, the issue that caused the biggest breach with the Obama administration and left Netanyahu looking weak. The Israeli leader tried and failed to stop the international nuclear agreement Obama instigated, going so far as to defy the White House by speaking against the deal in an extraordinary direct address to Congress.
Former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis A. Ross said the Israelis know that Trump will not tear up the Iran nuclear pact, even though he campaigned by calling it “a terrible deal.”
Netanyahu wants an understanding that the United States will act to deter Iran, Ross said, a declaration that any Iranian move toward a nuclear weapon “will produce a military response and not a sanctions response.”
In the future, Netanyahu will need to show that he is not being steamrollered in any peace effort driven by Trump and his close adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump has already named Kushner as his chief envoy and signaled that he is looking to Arab states to help push the Palestinians toward an accommodation.
Although Trump has nominated settlement supporter David M. Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, he is also on record twice warning Netanyahu against expanding Jewish home-building in the West Bank.
“No deal is a good deal if it isn’t good for all sides,” Trump said in an interview last week with Israel Hayom – a widely circulated free newspaper owned by a Netanyahu patron, the Las Vegas casino magnate and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
“We are currently in a process that has been going on for a long time. Decades. A lot of people think that it can’t be done. And a lot of smart people around me claim that you can’t reach an agreement. I don’t agree. I think we can reach an agreement and that we need to reach an agreement.”
In the same interview, Trump suggested he is slowing down a campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose future status the United States has long insisted must be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.
Hours before Netanyahu’s departure, Israeli media published leaked information from a discussion that took place Sunday inside the security cabinet. According to the reports, Trump told Netanyahu, when the two spoke for the first time on Jan. 22, that he is determined to pursue a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu responded that he still supports the two-state solution but stressed it was the Palestinians who are unwilling at this time to reach a peace deal.
“We have to make every effort to avoid a confrontation with him,” Netanyahu reportedly told his ministers on Sunday. “Trump believes in a deal and in running peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. We should be careful and not do things that will cause everything to break down. We mustn’t get into a confrontation with him.”
Trump’s swaggering “new sheriff” posture in defense of Israel on the world stage has “raised a lot of hopes in Israel,” said Yoaz Hendel, an Israeli military historian who chairs the Institute for Zionist Strategies.
“Maybe the Messiah is there and they are going to change everything,” Hendel joked as he characterized the pro-settler view that the American president might reverse years of Republican and Democratic policy by greenlighting a West Bank building boom.
“There is also fear that maybe Trump will wake up one day and decide he wants the Nobel” Peace Prize, Hendel said. “Say to Netanyahu, ‘Make Israel Great Again, let’s cut a deal. What’s so hard?’ ”
That would put Netanyahu on the spot, as his critics at home well know.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, called the coming White House session “the test of Netanyahu’s life.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anne Gearan, Ruth Eglash