- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

At his first White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump shook up Middle East peace negotiations Tuesday, forging a stronger alliance with the Jewish state and threatening to walk away from a two-state solution for the Palestinians.

The jovial exchanges between the two leaders, who call themselves longtime friends, and their shared tough stance against Iran and Islamic State terrorists immediately repaired years of damaged relations between the Obama administration and Israel.

Mr. Trump brought his deal-making prowess to the peace process. He told Mr. Netanyahu that he must make compromises and should delay new settlements in the occupied territories, a prickly political issue at home for the prime minister.

“We’ll work something out, but I would like to see a deal be made,” the president said. “I think a deal will be made.”

Mr. Netanyahu also lauded Mr. Trump’s leadership in the global fight against radical Islamic terrorism.

“Under your leadership, I believe we can reverse the rising tide of radical Islam,” he told the president.

He said Mr. Trump showed “great courage in confronting this threat head-on.”

During the campaign, Mr. Trump ran on a strong pro-Israel platform and vowed to make defeating the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, a top priority of his administration.

He frequently criticized Mr. Obama for avoiding the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The two leaders’ first White House meeting “ushers in a new era in American-Israeli relations,” said Eytan Gilboa, director of Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“The context, contents and visuals of the welcoming and the press conference were exactly the opposite of the first meeting between Netanyahu and Obama,” said Mr. Gilboa, an analyst of Israeli-U.S. relations. “The two leaders praised each other and committed to upgrade the U.S.-Israel alliance. Trump is more friendlier toward Israel than Obama.”

Still, Mr. Trump’s hard-line approach to Middle East policy unnerved many of the other players in the region.

Mr. Trump said he didn’t care if Israel and the Palestinians use a two-state solution or a one-state solution, as long as both sides strike a deal for lasting peace.

“I’m looking at two-state or one-state,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

The statement was a jarring departure from the longtime U.S. position that the creation of a separate Palestinian state was fundamental to a Middle East peace deal, as well as a chief demand of the Palestinians.

The seismic shift in the U.S. position sent shock waves through Palestinian leadership, sparking warnings that it could destroy any chance for peace.

“Accommodating the most extreme and irresponsible elements in Israel and in the White House is no way to make responsible foreign policy,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement.

The unorthodox policy position also rattled pro-Israel lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat, issued a statement reminding the president that 90 percent of House members signed a letter last year backing the two-state solution as the only way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Today President Trump refused to lend his voice toward this goal. Not only were his remarks shameful, they were short-sighted,” she said. “A two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is the only means to ensure Israel’s long-term security and enable Palestinian aspirations for their own state. That is why presidents from both parties, the vast majorities of the House and Senate, and the American people have consistently supported this objective, and why President Trump must as well.”

At the White House, Mr. Netanyahu followed the president’s lead.

He said that, to achieve peace, the onus remained on the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist and give Israel security control over all territory west of the Jordan River.

“The Palestinians vehemently reject both prerequisites for peace,” the prime minister said. “First they continue to call for Israel’s destruction inside their schools, inside their mosques, inside the textbooks.”

Mr. Trump said that brokering a Middle East peace deal was important to him personally.

Asked by a reporter about Israeli settlement on occupied Palestinian territory, Mr. Trump nodded to the prime minister: “I’d like to see you hold back a little bit.”

At home, Mr. Netanyahu has been under political pressure to expand settlements after a court-ordered shutdown of some Israeli encampments.

Mr. Trump said both sides would have to compromise to achieve a peace deal.

“Bibi and I’ve known each other a long time,” said Mr. Trump, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “Smart man, great negotiator, and I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand.”

Mr. Netanyahu began to speak but hesitated.

“Doesn’t sound too optimistic,” said Mr. Trump. “But good negotiator.”

“That’s the art of the deal,” responded Mr. Netanyahu, eliciting laughs from the audience.

The exchange highlighted the chemistry between the two leaders.

The visit included a sit-down in the Oval Office and bilateral meetings.

Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu discussed Iranian aggression in the region, the Iran nuclear deal, the Syrian civil war and the threat from Islamic State terrorists.

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