President Donald Trump has asked Israel’s prime minister to “hold off” on building Jewish settlements in land the Palestinians claim for their future state, yet held back from explicitly endorsing support for a future independent Palestine.
After weeks of dancing around the issue of expanded Israeli settlements, Mr Trump made the request to Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference at the White House preceding their private discussions.
It is Mr Netanyahu’s first trip to Washington since Mr Trump became president.
While Mr Trump’s call echoed that of past US presidents, who have considered Israeli housing construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank an obstacle to a Mideast peace deal, the American leader broke with his predecessors on the idea of a two-state agreement.
While such an accord may have once appeared to be the “easier of the two” options, Mr Trump said he would be open to alternatives if the two sides propose something better.
The two leaders were to discuss peace efforts as well as Iran and Mr Trump’s campaign pledge to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Relocating the embassy would signal American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that would infuriate Palestinians. They claim the eastern sector of the city, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as their capital.
Mr Trump said on Wednesday he would like to see the embassy moved but that he is studying the issue closely.
American presidents have struck a delicate balance in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stressing the close US friendship with Israel and lavishing the Jewish state with bountiful aid. But recent presidents also have called out Israel for actions seen as undermining peace efforts, such as expanding settlements.
On Tuesday, a senior White House official said Mr Trump is eager to begin facilitating a peace deal between the two sides and hopes to bring them together soon.
It will be up to the Israelis and Palestinians to determine what peace will entail, said the official.
Peace, not a two-state solution, is the goal, the official said.
State Department officials said they were not aware of any policy shift on the desirability of an agreement establishing an independent Palestine side-by-side with Israel – long the bedrock of US policy in the region.
Three officials said the department was seeking clarification from the White House’s comments, which came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was having dinner with Mr Netanyahu on Tuesday.