WASHINGTON — While adamantly refusing to endorse a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that he does not intend to annex the West Bank and offer Israeli citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there.
In a briefing after his meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, Netanyahu also indicated a willingness to consider the US president’s call to rein in settlement construction. Later, however, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying he did no such thing.
“I said it before, and I will repeat it here again: I don’t want to annex close to 2.5 millions Palestinians to Israel. I do not want them to be our subjects,” Netanyahu told Israeli and international reporters shortly after he left the White House following his first meeting with Trump.
At the same time, Netanyahu revealed that he asked the president to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981. He refused to disclose how Trump and his aides responded, but said they did not appear surprised.
Echoing his remarks from a joint press conference with Trump earlier, Netanyahu argued that his positions on Palestinian statehood have not changed since his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan university, in which he recognized, in principle, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized the Jewish state.
During the post-White House briefing at the Blair House, however, the prime minister repeatedly dodged questions as to whether his Bar-Ilan speech was still valid or whether he still endorses a Palestinian state.
Asked if the two-state solution is dead, Netanyahu said that depended on how one defined the term. “Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state and continues to talk about the ‘right of return’ and does not agree to the IDF having full security control [over the West Bank]. That is his policy, and it is unacceptable to us.”
Lamenting the use of “labels,” such as two-state solution or one-state solution, Netanyahu insisted that his positions regarding Palestinian statehood have not changed at all. “I have been very consistent about that,” he said.
Netanyahu’s apparent distancing from the two-state solution came a day after the White House said a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not have to come in that form and that the president will not insist on it.
Trump said Wednesday that he believed a peace deal was possible, but indicated that he was not going to tell Israelis or Palestinians how to reach it. “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said, showing receptiveness to Netanyahu’s call for a regional initiative that relied on Israel’s improving relationships with Arab countries.
During their meeting, Netanyahu said he and Trump discussed the issue of West Bank settlements, but indicated that the two leaders have yet to reach an agreement on the issue.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump had turned to Netanyahu during their joint press conference and issued a gently worded warning to the Israeli leader over his government’s continued West Bank settlement construction, telling him, “I’d like you to hold off on settlements for a little bit.”
Netanyahu told reporters Wednesday that the Trump administration and Israel “want to reach agreement [on settlements]. We discussed it and will continue to discuss it in order to get to an agreement.” He refused to say whether an agreement was already reached, or whether the sought arrangement could resemble the Bush-Sharon letter in which former US president George W. Bush, in 2004, acknowledged the existence of large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank and said it would be “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
In that letter, Bush also declared that “any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
Netanyahu did say that recently announced plans for some 6,000 housing units in various settlements across the West Bank and in East Jerusalem would still go ahead. However, he was hesitant to talk about the establishment of a new settlement, which he promised the settler community as compensation for Amona, an illegal outpost that was evacuated last month due to a court order that determined it was built on private Palestinian land. And he indicated that he would at least consider Trump’s request that he rein in settlements.
Plans for a new settlement were “still being negotiated,” Netanyahu said, but “if there’s a request to examine this issue from so friendly a president, I think it’s appropriate to make the effort.”
“In Jerusalem, we’ll continue to build, and everything we’ve already announced will be built. But, on the rest, we need to discuss [it] and reach an agreement,” Netanyahu said, adding that while the US and Israel see “eye to eye on the rest of the issues, we must examine any request on this issue because it is in our interest.”
Later, however, his office issued a short statement asserting that “there are inaccurate headlines [appearing on this issue]. The prime minister did not say that he was prepared to discuss reining in construction.”
On the question of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he told Trump that he firmly supports the move, but that Trump said he was thoroughly examining the matter. “He heard our position, which was definitive. He wants time to check the issue,” said the prime minister.
Netanyahu also said he and Trump discussed “at great length” regional challenges, especially the Iran nuclear agreement and the regime’s increasing aggression and the Syrian civil war, though he refused to divulge details.
“The president repeated in private what he also said publicly, that this is a terrible deal and that he’s committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Netanyahu said. “We agreed to cooperate in confronting Iranian aggression in the region.”
During their joint appearance in the White House’s East Room, Trump called the 2015 Iranian nuclear pact “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen” but stopped short of calling for its cancellation.
“My administration has already imposed new sanctions on Iran, and I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing — I mean ever — a nuclear weapon,” Trump said.
Netanyahu told the journalists at the Blair House that Tehran would be able to develop many nuclear weapons once the deal expires, and that it was his goal to prevent such an outcome.
“There are a variety of ways to go about that, and I discussed them at great length with the president,” he said, without elaboration.
The prime minister hailed Trump as a staunch ally of Israel and the best friend the Jewish people could wish for. He rejected concerns over the White House’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement last month, which failed to mention the Jewish people, as misplaced.
“There is no doubt that the president and his team understand very well the significance of the Holocaust as an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, and that they fully appreciate the centrality of the Holocaust in Jewish life,” he said.