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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Donald Trump answer questions at the White House. (Credit: Avi Ohayan, GPO)

(JNS and combined sources) President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held their first joint press conference on Wednesday at the White House, ahead of a private meeting that was expected to herald warmer ties between the Israeli and American administrations.

Trump’s comments during the press conference followed previous calls by his administration for Israel to halt the expansion of settlement building. In a Feb. 10 interview with Israel Hayom, Trump said he believes settlements “don’t help” the peace process.

Trump’s administration was expected to take a softer stance on settlements than the preceding administration of President Barack Obama. Following higher-than-usual tension between the U.S. and Israel during the Obama years, Trump told Israel Hayom in the recent interview, “I don’t want to condemn Israel….I understand Israel very well, and I respect Israel a lot, and they have been through a lot.”

“The exchange between Trump and Netanyahu on settlements was a clear indication that the two men may not necessarily see eye to eye on everything,” Mideast expert Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS.org. “But it would be a mischaracterization to call that exchange contentious. This is the way allies typically interact, but that was not how things worked during the Obama years.

Trump also spoke Wednesday about helping the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal, but argued that the result will ultimately be up to the parties themselves.

The president said Israel needs to “show some flexibility” and to “show they really want to make a deal,” while the Palestinians need to “get rid of some of the hate that they’re taught from a very young age.”

Notably, Trump seemed to break with decades of U.S. foreign policy by not firmly committing to support for a two-state solution, saying that he will agree with whatever plan the Israelis and Palestinians prefer.

“I’m looking at two states and one state. I am very happy with the one that both parties like. If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, then I’m happy with the one they like the best,” Trump said.

Netanyahu, who has been pressured by some members of his governing coalition to back away from the two-state solution, repeated his previous demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and end terrorism and incitement, while allowing Israel to retain its security control west of the Jordan River.

Asked if the two-state solution is no longer an option in the wake of Trump’s comments that he would not necessarily push for that specific solution, Netanyahu replied, “In my perception, Israel will maintain under all circumstances its controlling authority over security issues - and I will insist on that.”

The Israeli leader spoke about focusing more on a regional approach to the conflict, and touted Israel’s improving relations with Arab neighbors in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.

“Under your leadership, I believe we can reverse the rising tide of radical Islam,” Netanyahu told Trump. “Rolling back radical Islam, we can seize an historic opportunity because for the first time in my lifetime and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy. This change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace.”

At a press briefing held following his meeting with the president, Netanyahu revealed that he had asked Trump to officially recognize Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights, seeing it as part of the State of Israel. He noted that Trump did not rule out the possibility and was not surprised by the request.

Netanyahu also hailed the friendship between the United States and Israel, saying, “I’ve felt quite a few miracles in my life and I can say that we have never had a greater friend than Trump.”

Regarding the potential move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a campaign promise that Trump made last year, the president took a more cautious approach. He said he is still “studying” the embassy issue.

Wednesday’s much-anticipated meeting follows days of turmoil within Trump’s administration. On the eve of Netanyahu’s visit, a key member of President Trump’s staff, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, resigned due to mounting pressure over his contacts with Russia.

Flynn resigned late Monday night after admitting that he had misled Trump administration officials, notably Vice President Mike Pence, over his conversation with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, in December.

In another blow to the president’s administration, it was announced on Wednesday that Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, had withdrawn his name from consideration.