In an exclusive interview with Second Nexus, the head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, speaks about his expectations, hopes, and concerns over the Trump administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This comes on the heels of the recent White House meeting between Trump and Netanyahu. Mr. Harris recently sent an open letter to President Trump, and in our interview, he explains the reasons for this letter.
By Jay Kuo and Thanos Dimadis
SECOND NEXUS: During their meeting at the White House, President Trump asked Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlement construction. How do Israelis perceive this when, a few weeks ago, they approved 2,500 new housing units for construction?
DAVID HARRIS: There was some ambiguity in President Trump’s statement, according to Israelis with whom we have spoken. The new units are largely slated for construction in existing settlement blocs that Israel would expect to retain in any peace deal with the Palestinians. They are, therefore, viewed differently than settlement construction elsewhere in the West Bank, i.e., beyond the existing security barrier, which would raise serious questions about jeopardizing the feasibility of any two-state agreement.
SECOND NEXUS: Do you see Trump following through on his promise to support Israel over Palestine? His advice to “hold back” on settlement construction fails to differentiate him from Obama, and contradicts campaign statements encouraging Israel to “keep going” with West Bank settlements.
DAVID HARRIS: Our impression is that the Israeli government is convinced of President Trump’s abiding commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. One illustration of this is the strong support Israel is receiving from the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who has already made clear that defending Israel and ending the systematic bias against the Jewish state at the UN will be top priorities of hers.
SECOND NEXUS: How do you interpret President Trump’s call for Israel to show “flexibility” regarding a potential peace deal with Palestine? What does this say about Trump’s perception of Israel?
DAVID HARRIS: If there is ever going to be a peace deal, then, by definition, both sides are going to have to demonstrate flexibility. Clinging to maximalist positions will not create the space for compromise required between opposing sides. Most observers believe that the climate is not ripe now for major progress, largely because the Palestinian side has been missing from the bargaining table, is confronted with irreconcilable divisions between the West Bank and Gaza, and has no succession plan for the aging President Abbas. If there is any hope at the moment, whether in Jerusalem or Washington, it is the dramatic turnaround in the attitudes of major Sunni Arab states towards Israel. Whether this can contribute to a new negotiating environment remains to be seen, but, clearly, Washington and Jerusalem hope so.
SECOND NEXUS: President Trump says he favors a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is this stance clear enough for a workable way forward?
DAVID HARRIS: I published an analysis of the President’s comments in the Huffington Post entitled “Two-State, One-State: The Difference Matters,” which can be found at www.ajc.org. In brief, it argues that, notwithstanding the President’s words, the only likely pathway to a solution is the two-state concept, however fraught with difficulty it might be.
SECOND NEXUS: Was there something you expected President Trump to say during his press conference with President Netanyahu that he did not say?
DAVID HARRIS: No, not when it came to the bilateral relationship and Middle East. The press conference reflected the warmth of the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, including what appeared to be a strong personal chemistry between the two leaders.
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