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Trump, Netanyahu Project Unity; Hearings Open on Ambassador Nominee


President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Feb. 15, 2017.

A day after U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu projected a message of unity at a White House meeting, a Senate committee is holding a confirmation hearing for Trump’s pick to be the United States’ ambassador to Israel.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled Thursday to question lawyer David Friedman, who is a strong supporter of Israeli settlements and an advocate for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

A group of five former ambassadors who held the position under Republican and Democratic presidents sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying Friedman has “extreme, radical positions.”

They wrote that Friedman has said he does not believe it would be illegal for Israel to annex the West Bank, and called a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “an illusory solution in search of a nonexistent problem.”

The Trump administration has said that with Friedman as its ambassador, U.S.-Israeli relations would be a “model of cooperation and respect.”

Trump suggested Wednesday he was open to alternatives to a two-state solution. That potentially upends decades of U.S. diplomatic efforts aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like," Trump said during a news conference with Netanyahu. “I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it might be the easier of the two, but honestly, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best."

WATCH: Trump on Israeli settlements

During the news conference, Trump also asked Netanyahu to “hold back for a little bit” on expanding settlements in Palestinian territory, while the White House works on efforts to revive the Middle East peace process.

“I think we’re going to make a deal,” Trump said. “It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room understand.”

For his part, Netanyahu also refused to commit to a two-state solution. He said he planned to discuss settlements with Trump later, so that the U.S. and Israel don’t keep “bumping into each other.”

“I believe that the issue of the settlements is not the core of the conflict, nor does it really drive the conflict,” Netanyahu said. “I think it's an issue that has to be resolved in the context of peace negotiations.”

Trump firm on Iran

The meeting, the two leaders’ first since taking office, follows a period of rocky U.S.-Israel relations during the past eight years. Former President Barack Obama and Netanyahu clashed frequently clashed over issues including Israeli settlements and the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump and Netanyahu highlighted areas of cooperation, including on opposing radical Islamic terrorism and ensuring that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.

WATCH: Netanyahu's message to Palestinians

“My administration has already imposed new sanctions on Iran. And I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing -- and I mean ever -- a nuclear weapon,” Trump said.

Netanyahu praised what he said was Trump’s “great clarity and courage in confronting” the challenge from Iran.

Eytan Gilboa, a public diplomacy professor at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, told VOA's Persian service he believes Netanyahu no longer seeks to push the United States to reject the Iran nuclear deal – something he lobbied the U.S. Congress to do last year, without success.

“Netanyahu and Trump already agree that the deal was a bad one and that it’s not going to accomplish its intended goal,” Gilboa said. “Now, there are other issues on the table that concern both leaders, namely Iran’s experiments with long-range missile capabilities as well as Iranian sponsorship of terrorist groups in the region.”

Close relationship

Trump and Netanyahu's close relationship strengthened during the U.S. presidential election campaign, when they bonded over similar hard-line stances -- not only on Iran but also on immigration and terrorism.

In his campaign speeches Trump slammed Obama for making his feuds with Netanyahu public, and vowed there would be “no daylight” -- no difference in basic policy -- between the U.S. and Israel during his administration. Since taking office last month, however, possible areas of disagreement have emerged.

Palestinian men work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Jan. 25, 2017.
Palestinian men work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Jan. 25, 2017.

Earlier this month, the White House cautioned Israel against building more settlements, saying they were not “helpful” to peace efforts. Trump also has not followed through on a campaign promise to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following warnings from Arab leaders that the move could provoke violence.

On Wednesday, Trump said he would still like to see the embassy moved.

“We’re looking at that very strongly and looking at it with great care, great care, believe me,” he said.

Two states?

But Trump’s comments on the one-state solution will likely draw the most attention. Observers were mixed on just what the comments meant.

“I think it’s a mischaracterization to see this as a dramatic break with past U.S. policies,” said Yousef Munayyer, director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Munayyer is open to the creation of a single, democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians. But he questions whether that is what Trump was actually referring to.

A Palestinian man watches a joint press conference by U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a coffee shop in the West Bank city of Hebron, Feb. 15, 2017.
A Palestinian man watches a joint press conference by U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a coffee shop in the West Bank city of Hebron, Feb. 15, 2017.

Instead, he thinks Trump may have been signaling support for the status quo, in which Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, as it has since 1967.

“What we’re hearing from Trump today is that he’s open to that, and that he doesn’t expressly reject the status quo,” Munayyer told VOA.

Jonathan Adelman, who teaches at the University of Denver, also does not think Trump was referring to a single, democratic state -- an idea he says is unrealistic.

“The one-state solution won’t work because what would happen is that the Arabs would eventually have the majority in the one state. The Israelis are not going to agree to that. They didn’t fight for Israel for the last 74 years to have an Arab state,” Adelman said.

Two-state solution

Even before Trump and Netanyahu met, a senior White House official signaled the U.S. was backing away from its long-standing commitment to a two-state solution. “Peace is the goal, whether it comes in the form of a two-state solution -- if that’s what the parties want -- or something else," the official said.

Palestinian officials reacted negatively Wednesday to suggestions that the U.S. would abandon the effort to reach a two-state solution.

“The only alternative to two sovereign and democratic states on the 1967 border is one single, secular and democratic state with equal rights for everyone, Christians, Muslims and Jews, on all of historic Palestine," said Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Speaking in Cairo, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also reiterated support for the two-state solution.

“There is no Plan B to the situation between Palestinians and Israelis but a two-state solution, and everything must be done to preserve that possibility,” he said.

Trump's son-in-law holds key role

White House senior advisor Jared Kushner enters the East Room with his wife Ivanka Trump, prior to a joint news conference between President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House in Washington, Feb. 15, 2017.
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner enters the East Room with his wife Ivanka Trump, prior to a joint news conference between President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House in Washington, Feb. 15, 2017.

Whatever the eventual outcome, Trump has designated his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to head up Middle East peace efforts. Reports have suggested the White House will attempt to advance the talks by involving Arab states, specifically those that have increasingly warmed to Israeli leaders in recent years.

During his news conference, Trump confirmed that he would pursue a so-called “outside-in” strategy to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“It’s actually a much bigger deal – much more important deal in a sense,” Trump said. “It would take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory.”

It’s unclear how the administration intends to advance that deal, or which Arab states if any would agree to make peace with Israel or pressure the Palestinian leadership to do so.

William Quandt, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council who was involved in negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, doubts whether Arab states would put enough pressure on the Palestinians to come to an agreement.

“They’re not going to do it. They have other priorities. They’re relatively weak regimes in terms of fundamental legitimacy,” he told VOA.

Political pressure unlikely

Quandt also is skeptical that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would respond to political pressure.

“I mean, Abu Mazen [Abbas] is in the 14th year of his four-year term,” Quandt said, referring to Abbas. “What’s he going to do if people pressure him? He’s going to say: ‘We don’t accept.’ That’s his legitimacy: to say no.”

The University of Denver's Adelman thinks there is room for an “outside-in” approach. He noted that Arab leaders across the region are more open to the idea of using improved ties with Israel as a counter-balance against their rival, Iran.

“You take Saudi Arabia. They’ve always hated, hated, hated Israel. The last couple years there’s been a number of articles about senior people in Saudi Arabia talking positively about Israel. Why would they do that?”

“The bottom line is,” he says, “There’s a deal out there.”

Parisa Farhadi and Hooman Bakhtiar of VOA's Persian Service contributed to this report.

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