WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, endorsed the two-state solution Wednesday and denounced Palestinian terrorism as an obstacle to a peace deal, but said both sides in the decades-long conflict had failed to seize past opportunities to clinch an accord.
During his confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the former CEO of ExxonMobil laid out his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the first time.
Tillerson singled out the Palestinians’ failure to stop violence as a cause for the stalemate between the sides. “I would say in the case of the Palestinian leadership, while they have renounced violence, it is one thing to renounce it and another to take concrete action to prevent it,” he said.
“I think until there is a serious demonstration on their part and they are willing to do more than just renounce violence, [until] they are willing to do something to at least interrupt it or interfere with it, it is very difficult to create conditions at the table for parties to have any productive discussion around [a] settlement,” he added.
But Tillerson also lamented what he described as the inability of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make the compromises and risks necessary to reach an agreement.
“There have been many opportunities for the parties to sit down and work things out,” he said. “Leadership certainly have not seized those opportunities.”
During the afternoon session of his hours-long grilling by senators, Tillerson explicitly stated that he supported a two-state outcome to the conflict, but was unsure if it could come to fruition in the near future.
“I think that is the dream that everyone is in pursuit of,” he said. “Whether it can ever be a reality remains to be seen.”
Asked by Virgina Sen. Tim Kaine (D), a darling of the liberal Middle East advocacy group J Street, what he would do to seek peace talks, the nominee said the US had to try and “make the situation as stable as possible” to create conditions conducive to peacemaking.
The two-state solution, he said, “has to be a shared aspiration of all of us” and that “it’s the State Department’s role to try and create an environment that brings parties together that want to find a way forward. I can tell you that under the conditions today, it’s extremely challenging to do that, but that has to be the aspirational goal.”
Tillerson’s articulated support for two states comes after the transition process sent signals that Trump may not be committed to such an policy goal, particularly through his choice for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a vocal supporter and donor to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In an interview with The Times of Israel in November, Friedman stated that, in his discussions with Trump, “a two-state solution is not a priority. I don’t think he is wed to any particular outcome. A two-state solution is a way, but it’s not the only way.”
Tillerson also recognized the plight of Palestinians, though he partly blamed their own leaders for failing to deliver for them. “The Palestinian people have suffered a lot, under their own leadership in many cases, as a result of there not being more progress as made,” he said.
Earlier, Tillerson was asked by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) if he disapproved of last month’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements and if he thought it placed disproportionate blame for the conflict on Israel.
Tillerson responded in the affirmative and said the text of the resolution embraced by the international community hurt the prospects for peace.
“It would be akin, in many respects, to negotiating with someone who denies your right to exist,” he said. “Why would they ever live up to any agreement if they don’t expect you to be around? Then to force one party to the table through coercion, or however you want to describe it.”
“The most recent resolution is not useful,” he added.
UN Security Council Resolution 2334 — which passed after the United States decided not to use its veto — says the settlement project “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”
It demands a complete end to all construction in areas Israel captured after the 1967 Six Day War, including East Jerusalem, and calls on all states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” — language that Israel fears will lead to a surge in boycott and sanctions efforts, and that an Israeli official warned would provide “a tailwind for terror.”
On the role of the US as a mediator in the conflict, Tillerson said that American diplomatic engagement can “create a more fruitful environment for those discussions.” But he conceded, “At the end of it, this has to be settled between those parties.”
Such language is likely to please the pro-Israel caucus in Congress and AIPAC, which has long held the position that peace can only be achieved between direct, bilateral negotiations.