WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday asked Israel’s prime minister to “hold back” on building Jewish settlements in land the Palestinians claim for their future state, yet held back from explicitly endorsing support for a future independent Palestine.
As CBS2’s Andrea Grymes reported, Trump’s remarks implied a possible change from decades of policy when it comes to Israel.
After weeks of dancing around the issue of expanded Israeli settlements, Trump made the request to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference at the White House preceding their private discussions.
“I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out, but I would like to see a deal be made. I think a deal will be made,” Trump said.
Trump: “So let’s see what we do.”
Netanyahu: “Let’s try.”
Trump: “He doesn’t sound too optimistic (laughs). Good negotiator.”
Netanyahu: “That’s the art of the deal.”
The prime minister said the settlements aren’t the core problem.
“I think it’s an issue and it has to be resolved in the context of peace negotiations,” he said.
This is Netanyahu’s first trip to Washington since Trump became president, however the two have been friends for year. Their mutual admiration is a marked difference from the often iciness between the prime minister and former President Barack Obama.
“There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump,” Netanyahu said.
While Trump’s call echoed that of past U.S. presidents, who’ve considered Israeli housing construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank an obstacle to a Mideast peace deal, the American leader broke with his predecessors on the idea of a two-state agreement. While such an accord may have once appeared to be the “easier of the two” options, Trump said he’d be open to alternatives if the two sides propose something better.
“I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like,” the president said.
Netanyahu said it’s not about labels but substance.
“The Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state. They have to stop calling for Israel’s destruction. They have to stop educating their people for Israel’s destruction,” he said. “Israel must retain the overriding security control of the entire area west of the Jordan River, because if we don’t, we’ll get another radical Islamic terrorist state in the Palestinian areas, exploding the peace, exploding the Middle East.”
The two leaders were to discuss peace efforts as well as Iran and Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Relocating the embassy would signal American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that would infuriate Palestinians. They claim the eastern sector of the city, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as their capital.
“I’d love to see that happen. We’re looking at it very, very strongly with great, great care. Believe me,” the president said of moving the embassy.
Trump opened his joint news conference with Nethanyahu with a vow to encourage a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Trump reaffirmed the United States’ “unbreakable bond” between the two countries. He called Israel a symbol of resilience. He says Israel faces enormous security challenges and is calling the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under Obama “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen.”
“I look forward to working with you, to dramatically upgrade our alliance in every field,” Netanyahu said to Trump.
Trump said his administration has already put sanctions in place against Iran and that he “will do more to prevent Iran” from developing a nuclear weapon.
“Our security assistance to Israel is at an all time high, ensuring that Israel as the ability to defend itself to defend itself from threats, of which there are unfortunately, many,” Trump said.
Senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner is playing a lead role in the diplomacy, attending dinner with Netanyahu and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday night. Kushner was also in the front row for Wednesday’s joint conference.
“Can I reveal, Jared, how long I’ve known you?” Netanyahu asked. “He was never small, he was always big, he was always tall.”
Another New Yorker will also play a role. David Friedman is expected to be confirmed Thursday as U.S. ambassador to Israel. He’s the son of an Orthodox Jew and is an opponent of Palestinian statehood.
Two senior Palestinian officials said CIA Director Mike Pompeo also held talks in the West Bank with Palenstinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Their meeting was described as “warm and positive.”
The move was a change from Trump’s earlier criticisms of the Obama administration for not vetoing a U.N. resolution against Israeli settlement construction.
All of this comes amid a New York Times report this morning saying Trump campaign aides had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. According to the Times, American intelligence agencies looked into whether the Trump campaign was cooperating with the Russians on their attempts to influence the election — including hacking the Democratic National Committee.
Trump responded to the report on Twitter Wednesday, saying “the fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred.”
The Times reports that so far, officials interviewed have found no evidence of such cooperation.
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