Israeli right wing buoyed by Netanyahu's visit to Washington

PHOTO: A woman reads a newspaper as monitors showing the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, are seen next to a coffee shop in Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 15, 2017. PlayBaz Ratner/Reuters
WATCH Donald Trump welcomes Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House

A day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump met in Washington and both declined to commit to a two-state solution, the Israeli right declared a symbolic victory.

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"Trump is good for the Jews" trumpeted the front page of the free daily Israel Hayom, a right-wing paper supported by Trump donor and Netanyahu patron Sheldon Adelson.

There were some murmurs that a U.S. president who campaigned steadfastly in support of Israel had, perhaps surprisingly, chosen to publicly bring up the question of settlements during Wednesday's press conference.

"Trump: I'd like you to 'hold back' on settlements," read the cover of Thursday’s right-of-center Jerusalem Post, while the left-of-center Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper, chose: "Trump declines to endorse two-state solution, calls on PM to 'hold back on settlements'."

After the press conference, Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that "if there's a request from the [U.S.] president to examine this issue of construction in the settlements then I think it is in our national interest to reach an understanding."

But with Wednesday’s meeting, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition has chalked up his first visit with Trump as an unqualified success.

The prime minister's arch rival and leader of the far-right, pro-settlement Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, heaped praise on Netanyahu.

“This is the end of an era,” he said. "The Palestinian flag has come down and has been replaced by the Israeli flag. The prime minister displayed leadership and daring and strengthened Israel’s security.”

Last week, Bennett threatened that the "earth will shake" if Netanyahu mentioned the two-state solution or uttered the word Palestine. And to Bennett's great satisfaction, Netanyahu did not commit to a two-state solution in his meeting with Trump.

That satisfaction comes on the heels of the previous three weeks of Trump's presidency, where Netanyahu dramatically accelerated settlement expansion in a nod to his right-wing coalition. He announced the approval of more than 6,000 housing units in the occupied Palestinian territories, in addition to the first new settlement since the 1990s.

While settlements have long put the U.S. and Israel at odds, the Trump White House has largely kept quiet, issuing only a mild warning last week. Foreshadowing his press conference comments, last weekend Trump told Israel Hayom that he was "not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."

For Palestinians and parts of the Israeli center and left, however, Wednesday’s meeting was largely viewed as a dangerous policy shift, albeit for different reasons.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union party, said “it was sad and embarrassing to see Netanyahu avoid the concept of separating from the Palestinians via the two-state solution.” He decried a policy that he thought would ultimately weaken Israel’s ability to retain its Jewish character.

Fellow Zionist Union member Erel Margalit echoed that sentiment, saying Wednesday night that “the extreme right won tonight, and the state of Israel lost."

Left-wing party Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On issued a starker warning, saying that turning away from the two-state solution would “guarantee that we [Israel] will become an apartheid state" with two laws for two peoples.

The leader of Israel’s Arab-dominated Joint List and a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Ahmad Tibi, said Netanyahu’s meeting had left the path forward in some ways more clear.

“If Netanyahu and Trump decide they want a one-state solution, there will have to be equality and a right to vote for all.” He told CNN that if that's the case, he will run for prime minister. “All Palestinians will vote for me. Some Israeli Jews will vote for me and Netanyahu will be the loser," he said.

For more than two decades, U.S. policy has unequivocally pushed the two-state solution.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu opposed the Oslo peace process which enshrined the two-state paradigm, in a 2009 speech Bar Ilan University he declared support for a version of two independent states for two peoples, with Israel retaining a security presence in the West Bank.

But many on the Israeli right have criticized his support of two states, and the election of Trump has left Netanyahu with more room to maneuver with those on his right flank.

Meanwhile, for the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, Thursday’s meeting marked a major turning point for the worse.

The secretary-general of the PLO and veteran Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the alternative to two states is "a single democratic secular state for Jews, Muslims and Christians" where everyone has full rights.

But he suggested this was far from the Israeli leader’s conception of what one state would look like.

"What Netanyahu is thinking about, the one state-two systems, the military government imposed on Palestinians, is apartheid.”

He added, "I don't think they can sustain it, not in the 21st century."

In a statement, Palestinian President Abbas echoed Erekat, saying the Palestinian Authority "affirmed its continuing commitment to the two-state option, international law and legitimacy, which should ensure the end of the Israeli occupation, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, living in peace and security next to the State of Israel on the June 1967 borders."

Abbas added that he was ready “to deal positively with the Donald Trump administration to make peace.”

But President Trump's refusal to endorse the two-state solution sets him far apart from other international actors here in Jerusalem, including the European Union and the United Nations.

"There is no alternative solution for the situation between the Palestinians and Israelis," U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, "other than the solution of establishing two states, and we should do all that can be done to maintain this."

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