World

Trump asks Netanyahu to 'hold back' on settlements

U.S. President Donald Trump urges Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to curb settlement activity but avoids any explicit endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a longstanding bedrock of U.S. Middle East policy.

U.S. president to work toward a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday to curb settlement activity but avoided any explicit endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a longstanding bedrock of U.S. Middle East policy.

The two leaders met face-to-face for the first time since Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election as Palestinians urged the White House not to abandon their goal of an independent state.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Trump vowed to work toward a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians but said it would require compromise on both sides and it would be up to the parties themselves ultimately to reach an agreement.

"I'd like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit," Trump told Netanyahu.

The right-wing Israeli leader later insisted that Jewish settlements were "not the core of the conflict" and made no commitment to reduce settlement building.

U.S president confident Israel will reach a deal with Palestinians 0:47

Trump echoed Netanyahu's calls for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — something they have refused to do — and to halt incitement against Israelis. But even as Trump promised to pursue peace between the two sides — who have had no substantive peace talks since 2014 — he offered no new prescriptions for unblocking the peace process or achieving a deal that has eluded so many of his predecessors.

Setting a chummy tone for the meeting, Trump greeted Netanyahu on a red carpet rolled out to the White House driveway. The two leaders smiled, shook hands and chatted amiably before heading inside the executive mansion, accompanied by Trump's wife Melania and Netanyahu's wife Sara.

Among the questions expected to figure prominently on the agenda was the future of the two-state solution — the idea of creating a Palestine living peacefully alongside Israel, which has been a bedrock U.S. position.

Whatever they like

In a potential shift, a senior White House official said on Tuesday that peace did not necessarily have to entail Palestinian statehood, and Trump would not try to "dictate" a solution. Trump did little to clarify his position.

Giving a convoluted response to a question on whether he backed a two-state solution, he suggested that he could abide by whatever the two parties decided.

Trump wants a deal that both parties like 0:26

"I'm looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like," he said.

"I can live with either one. I thought for a while it looked like the two-state, looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly if Bibi and if the Palestinians if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best," Trump said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

A retreat from U.S. backing for a two-state solution would upend decades of U.S. policy embraced by Republican and Democratic administrations and a principle considered the core of international peace efforts.

Netanyahu committed, with conditions, to the two-state goal in a speech in 2009 and has broadly reiterated the aim since. But he has also spoken of a "state minus" option, suggesting he could offer the Palestinians deep-seated autonomy and the trappings of statehood without full sovereignty.

Palestinians alarmed

Palestinians reacted with alarm to the possibility that Washington might ditch its support for an independent Palestinian nation.

"If the Trump administration rejects this policy it would be destroying the chances for peace and undermining American interests, standing and credibility abroad," Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in response to the U.S. official's remarks.

"Accommodating the most extreme and irresponsible elements in Israel and in the White House is no way to make responsible foreign policy," she said in a statement.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas demanded a halt to Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories and said he was committed to a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel.

Abbas said he agreed with Trump's call for Israel to refrain from settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"The presidency demands that [Israel] agree to [Trump's call], and that of the international community, to halt all settlement activities, including in occupied East Jerusalem," the statement said.

"The Palestinian presidency stressed its commitment to the two-state solution and to the international law and international legitimacy in the way that secures ending the Israeli occupation and [establishing] the Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital."

Abbas's statement added that the Palestinians affirmed their "readiness to deal positively with the Trump administration to make peace." Talks have been frozen since 2014.

The Palestinians seek to establish an independent state that includes the Israeli-occupied West Bank, territory captured after the Six Day War in 1967, and the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Islamist militant group Hamas.