U.S. President Donald Trump (R) gestures at a joint press conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington D.C., the United States, on Feb. 15, 2017. Israel should "hold back" on building new settlement "for a little bit," U.S. President Donald Trump told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. (Xinhua/Yin Bogu)
by Keren Setton
JERUSALEM, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- The contradictions in the press conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not clarify the unknown about how the new American administration will handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While it seems Netanyahu leaves the U.S. with some political gains, there is no major change in sight for the coming future. The warm welcome does not necessarily mean the Israeli PM is free to act as he wishes.
Netanyahu and Trump hugged and shook hands at the White House on Wednesday as the two held a press conference ahead of a much anticipated meeting.
But it was also a press conference filled with ambiguity on Trump's part and satisfaction on Netanyahu's part.
It was the first time Trump had to intensively deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his statements revealed a certain degree of ignorance. But a careful listen may convey a clearer message to Israel.
Trump's main statement that he is indifferent to the type of solution that the sides come up with is a departure from the two-state solution stance that American administrations have held for years.
In a statement, Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog said it was "sad and embarrassing" to see Netanyahu "wrangling just in order to avoid the idea of separating from the Palestinians through two states."
It was certainly a slap in the face to the majority of Palestinians who see an independent Palestinian state as the only solution to their problem. Netanyahu's laughter at Trump's disregard was indicative of his satisfaction.
However, Trump publicly asked Netanyahu to scale down Israeli settlement activity.
"I'd like to see you hold back on settlements a little bit," Trump said casually.
For Netanyahu's coalition partners, this was a humbling request. The settlers and their representatives in parliament were sure that the Trump era heralds a green light in terms of Israeli settlement expansion.
Dr. Nimrod Goren, Head of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, believed this attitude is beneficial for both leaders.
"He (Trump) kept the doors open, Jerusalem, settlements, two-state solution yes or no, there was no concrete policy statement which is quite a convenient situation for Netanyahu to be in because it enables him to keep on his quiet policies without big American fan fare but also it's good for Trump to keep the doors open," he said.
Netanyahu leads a right-wing government that is considered the most right-wing nationalistic government in Israeli history. Some of his coalition partners are more hawkish than Netanyahu, calling for the annexation of the West Bank territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
Israel has avoided this step for many reasons, one of them being the anticipation of a harsh international response.
Israel is at odds with the international community on the fate of these territories. While Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal by the majority of the world, Netanyahu insists on strengthening Israel's hold on the territories.
In an attempt to appease the international community, Netanyahu has stated repeatedly that he is in favor of an independent Palestinian state. His actions throughout the years indicated otherwise.
Palestinians see the intensified settlement activity as a huge stumbling block to their aspiration for a state. They see the West Bank as a critical part of their future state.
Throughout Netanyahu's tenure, settlements have expanded greatly.
Trump's ambivalence towards the necessity of a Palestinian state as a solution to the conflict gives Netanyahu more wiggle room.
"I think Netanyahu will want the two-state solution to become a less relevant issue on the international agenda, to have fewer international discussions about it and therefore an American position like 'whatever you decide what's good for you'. It will enable Netanyahu the flexibility and the space to continue his policy without having international pressure," said Dr. Goren.
In the days after Trump's inauguration, Israel announced its plans to build thousands of new housing units in the West Bank. While in the past, the Obama administration would almost automatically condemn Israel after such a move, the new staff at the White House did not officiate the knee-jerk response.
Yet, Trump asking the Israeli leader to curtail settlement activity is perhaps an attempt by the Americans to keep the two-state solution alive.
"Netanyahu will want to continue what he's been doing for the last years. I think that's the model for him...increasing the Israeli control over the area. He's perhaps distancing the two-state solution. I think he will want to do so without annexation," Goren explained.
Netanyahu will not be able to build freely in the West Bank after Trump's blunt and simply worded request.
According to reports by the Israeli media, in a briefing to reporters after the closed meeting between Trump and Netanyahu, the latter said that he sees the need to accommodate such a request when coming from such a close friend of Israel.
So while the Israeli premier felt more welcome in the White House than he has in the last eight years, he was not given the freedom or the blind eye he may have wanted.
"The U.S. will not want to have actions that may lead to an actual escalation on the ground. What we saw over the last years is that Netanyahu can manage his settlement policies without directly leading to big explosions," Goren said.
Trump said he would be happy with a solution that both sides come up with, not only the Israeli side.
This means anything short of a full-fledged sovereign Palestinian state is not a solution the Palestinians will agree to. It's back to square one for the Israelis and Palestinians. If there will be no change in the leadership of both sides, it will be more of the same.
"There will be a slow erosion of chances for a two-state solution," Goren said in his assessment of the situation.
The friendship that Netanyahu encountered at the White House is a definite change from the bad blood that ran between him and Obama. Will this translate into a carte blanche for his policies and aspirations? This seems highly unlikely and Netanyahu is well aware of this.