President Donald Trump may be confident he can help mediate a historic peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. But don’t ask him what that deal looks like, because apparently he’s not saying.
During his meeting this week with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump repeatedly expressed hope for an “agreement,” a “deal,” or more generally an arrangement resulting in “peace” between the two sides.
Conspicuously absent from Trump’s remarks was any reference to a two-state solution or the notion of a Palestinian state, which the U.S. has long seen as the desired outcome of the Mideast peace negotiations.
The omission did not go unrecognized.
“He made sure he never mentioned Palestine — you noticed that, yes?” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, told VOA. “I think he’s departing in some ways from long-standing American policy on the two-state solution.”
U.S. officials insist Trump is not opposed to two states; they say he is simply keeping all options open and is allowing the Israelis and Palestinians to decide for themselves what the result of peace talks will be.
But Trump’s reluctance to even mention the idea of a Palestinian state risks sending mixed messages at a sensitive moment, as the White House tries to restart peace talks, and could further the perception among many Palestinians that the U.S. is not an impartial broker in the dispute.
A pattern of wavering
It’s not the first time the question has been raised. During a meeting in February with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump explicitly said he would consider alternatives to the two-state framework.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state,” said Trump, alongside Netanyahu. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
It’s not clear what Trump meant by “one-state,” since the U.S., Israel, and most Palestinian leaders have long opposed the creation of a single, democratic state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.
Although the comment created headlines, U.S. State Department officials deny it reflects a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
“The administration is not casting aside the two-state solution,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA. “It still remains a possibility if both parties agree that a two-state solution is their preferred approach, and in such an event the president will strongly support them in moving toward that goal. This is not our choice to make — it is theirs to make together.”
As far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned, an independent state based on pre-1967 borders remains the only solution.
“Our strategic choice is to bring about peace based on the vision of the two-state,” Abbas, who heads the West Bank-based PA, told Trump.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, this week also took steps toward accepting a two-state framework, issuing a political document that omitted the group’s previous call for Israel’s destruction.
For Israel’s part, Netanyahu first endorsed the principle of a two-state solution in 2009. But he has at times backed away from the idea, such as during the 2015 election, when he said he would never permit a Palestinian state to be established under his watch.
Complicating matters, most Israeli cabinet ministers in Netanyahu’s right-wing government oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.
Trump offering a favor?
That could help explain why Trump is unwilling to even say the words “two-state solution” or “Palestinian state,” said Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, in an interview with VOA.
“At the moment, it’s politically difficult for Netanyahu to utter those formulas. So I think Trump is trying to do him a favor by finding other formulas,” said Shapiro, now a fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.
But if you read between the lines of what Trump is proposing — a peace deal achieved through direct talks that both sides can accept and that Arab countries will support — a two-state solution is the only option, Shapiro said.
Backing up that theory, White House negotiators have privately reassured Palestinian officials of their support for two states, according to various news reports.
But as Palestinians prepare next month to mark the 50-year anniversary of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, land Palestinians want for an independent state, few see reasons for optimism about the Trump-led peace process.
“Let’s just say I’m extremely realistic,” said Ashrawi, the Palestinian lawmaker, laughing. “It’ll take a lot to convince me that there is a peacemaker now in the White House who knows how to make a deal that is based on international law and justice.”
VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report.