Trump and Netanyahu bond as US backs off two-state vision

Andrew Beatty and Dave Clark
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US President Donald Trump will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is expected to express a desire to help broker an Israeli-Palestinian solution

US President Donald Trump will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is expected to express a desire to help broker an Israeli-Palestinian solution (AFP Photo/GALI TIBBON)

Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed the US-Israel partnership Wednesday in defiance of international pressure for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shortly before Trump was to welcome Netanyahu to the White House, a senior US official briefed reporters that Washington would no longer insist that any peace deal lead to a recognized Palestinian state.

This will delight Netanyahu and his right-wing rivals in his own government who have been pushing for greater Israeli settlement building in east Jerusalem and on Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

But the change in position enraged the Palestinians, already pessimistic about hopes for peace with Trump's arrival in the White House, and drew a stern warning from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Trump and Netanyahu were to address reporters later in the day but, on the eve of their White House talks, a senior official mapped out the US change in tack.

"A two-state solution that doesn't bring peace is not a goal that anybody wants to achieve," he said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

"Peace is the goal, whether that comes in the form of a two-state solution if that's what the parties want, or something else if that's what the parties want."

"That's going to be up to them, we are not going to dictate what the terms of peace are going to be."

The new US message deliberately echoed the long-standing Israeli government position: No peace deal can be imposed from outside and the agenda for talks must reflect the reality on the ground.

But it flew in the face of the international consensus that any final status agreement must be based on a return to Israel's 1967 border -- albeit with land swaps -- and on two states side-by-side.

Just five days before Trump's January 20 inauguration, Barack Obama's outgoing US administration was among 70 countries -- including fellow major powers -- to endorse this vision at a peace conference in Paris.

And just a month before that, Obama's ambassador to the United Nations had broken with longstanding US policy to allow a UN motion to pass that criticized Israeli settlement building as a threat to peace.

Addressing a US-Israeli conference in December, the then secretary of state John Kerry called settlements a "barrier" to progress and accused members of Netanyahu's government of sabotaging the peace process.

Under Trump, that vision appears dead, and Washington has aligned itself with Netanyahu's government and its supporters in the right-wing settler movement.

- International isolation -

The United States is Israel's key ally -- an outgoing Obama agreed the biggest military aid package in US history to defend it over the next decade -- but it finds itself facing broader international isolation.

Speaking in Cairo after talks with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, UN chief Guterres warned that "everything must be done" to preserve the two-state solution.

France, which organized the January peace conference, was also unimpressed. Its ambassador to the UN, Francois Delattre told reporters "our commitment to the two-state solution is stronger than ever."

In Ramallah, senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said the change in US policy "does not make sense."

"This is not a responsible policy and it does not serve the cause of peace," Ashrawi told AFP. "They cannot just say that without an alternative."

Trump has yet to speak directly to the Palestinian leadership since taking office.

Despite international concern and doubt, Trump is expected to tell Netanyahu he hopes to help broker a solution to the conflict -- a challenge that has eluded his predecessors for four decades.

He has already tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner and lawyer Jason Greenblatt to lead his peace drive. Kushner had dinner on Tuesday with Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But major questions remain.

Netanyahu won re-election in 2015 by insisting he would not accept the creation of a Palestinian state. He back-tracked later, but not before he had soured relations with the Obama White House.

- Unruly region -

Trump has not blamed Netanyahu's settlement policies for holding up peace talks, instead offering Israel some scope to build on land already under development.

Aside from winning support for policies that will help him at home, Netanyahu will want to gauge Trump's appetite for better relations with Russia.

Trump has signaled his willingness to work with Russia to defeat the Islamic State group in Syria.

That could de facto mean furthering the goals of Russian allies Bashar al-Assad and Iran.

Israel sees Iran and its Lebanese ally the Hezbollah militia as the greatest threats in an unruly region, a view shared by the leaders of the main Sunni Arab states of the region.