US President Donald Trump's shelving of the decades-long goal of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict has excited Israelis and alarmed Palestinians, though no one is quite sure what it means.
Trump rejected the long-established US framework at a White House visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday as he announced his desire to reach "the ultimate deal."
The announcement was hailed by ministers in Israel's rightwing government, a number of whom have called for the annexation of Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank.
"The Palestinian flag has come down from the mast and the Israeli flag has taken its place," Education Minister Naftali Bennett said.
Rightwing politicians consider the West Bank, occupied since 1967 in contravention of international law, to be part of historic Israel for religious reasons.
Some Palestinians and Middle East experts reacted with alarm, saying that such a policy change would undercut the chances, already slim, of progress toward reconciliation between the two sides.
Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinians, raised the spectre of “apartheid” and called for “concrete measures in order to save the two-state solution.”
“This is going to give Israel a free hand to do what it wants,” said Mosheer A Amer, an associate professor at the Islamic University here in Gaza City. “At least Obama had some control over Netanyahu.”
Israel captured and occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem 50 years ago, in 1967, and the status of the former Jordanian territories has been a source of conflict ever since. (So has the Gaza Strip, which had formerly been administered by Egypt.)
For Palestinians, who seek a state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and in the Gaza Strip, even the notion of a US retreat from the internationally backed goal of a future Palestine existing alongside Israel was alarming.
"If the Trump Administration rejects this policy it would be destroying the chances for peace and undermining American interests, standing and credibility abroad," Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said.
Trump has yet to speak to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and officials have quietly expressed alarm.
Abbas said his government was "ready to deal positively" with the White House, highlighting Trump's appeal to Netanyahu on to "hold back" on settlements -- seen as illegal by the international community -- for a "little while."
Hossam Zomlot, Abbas' special advisor, told AFP that while a two-state solution was still preferred, his administration was willing to discuss all options, providing Palestinian rights were protected.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking in Cairo alongside the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed that the Israelis and Palestinians must not abandon a commitment to a two-state solution.
"There is no Plan B to the situation between Palestinians and Israelis but a two-state solution and that everything must be done to preserve that possibility," he said in remarks to the press.
Yesterday, Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit said resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would require a two-state solution, a day after Washington signalled it would drop that demand.
Abul Gheit affirmed that the conflict "requires a comprehensive and just peace based on a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state," a statement said after he met UN chief Antonio Guterres in Cairo.
Jihad Harb, a Palestinian political scientist, said the leadership was being cautious due to its "weak position" and its past failure to follow through on threats.
"The Palestinian leadership has failed to open a dialogue with the US administration. It is afraid that an escalation [in rhetoric] at this stage could ruin any possibility of dialogue."
The leadership, he added, has limited options if Trump continues to freeze them out.
It could return to the United Nations or International Criminal Court for another attempt to exert pressure, or instead push for "a movement of popular resistance against the occupation," according to Harb.
What a one-state solution would look like in reality remains unclear.
Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think tank said the Trump administration appeared to have "zero clarity" on the meaning of a one-state solution, leaving the Israelis in prime position to dictate terms.
"Essentially Netanyahu was presented with the choice between one state and two," he said. "But he is in favour of one state and a half."
Shmuel Rosner from the Jewish People Policy Institute agreed it was unclear what Trump meant.
"I don't think what Trump presented yesterday was a realistic vision for Middle East peace," he said.
ARAB-BACKED PEACE PROCESS?
Declaring his deep support for the Jewish state and abandoning the bedrock principle that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come via two states, Trump referred to the possibility of an Arab-backed peace process, an idea that's been floating around since the beginning of this century without producing results.
"The United States will encourage a peace and really, a great peace deal," Trump declared at a news conference alongside Netanyahu. "We'll be working on it very, very diligently."
Asked whether he was abandoning the idea of a two-state solution, Trump said, "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like."
He continued, "If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best."
He also said at one point, "It is the parties themselves that must directly negotiate. Both sides will have to make compromises." Then turning to Netanyahu, he added a question: "You know that, right?"
The night before Netanyahu's arrival at the White House, senior administration officials cast doubt on the two-state solution, which the international community still holds as the basic foundation of any agreement. The US explicitly called for that arrangement under Republican President George W Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama.
A White House official said peace did not necessarily have to entail Palestinian statehood and it was up to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves to decide on the shape of any future peace.
In response, PLO leading Hanan Ashrawi, said if Trump was "trying to create alternative realities, then he should spell out what the options are. A one-state solution would require equal rights and citizenship for all, unless he is advocating an apartheid state."
There are growing questions about whether a two-state solution is even possible, given Israel's continued settlement building, said Diana Buttu, a former spokeswoman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization who now teaches at Harvard University.
Since Trump's inauguration, Israel has announced 6,000 new settlement homes and legalized settler outposts in the West Bank.
Netanyahu, who endorsed the idea of two states in 2009 under pressure from the Obama administration, sidestepped questions about whether he still supports the concept Wednesday, saying instead he wanted to avoid "labels" and talk substance: the need for Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and the need for Israel to have overriding security control. It's not clear how Netanyahu is going to persuade them to come to the table.
He also didn't give a direct response when asked whether he would comply with Trump's request at the news conference that he "hold back" on settlement expansion.
Pressed by reporters later Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister replied, "I think we'll try to find a common understanding that is consistent with pursuit of peace and security."
It was an early indication that getting the parties to comply with US aspirations in the Middle East can be a challenge.
"I believe the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach," Netanyahu said at the White House, "from involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians."
Trump described the idea of Arab involvement as "actually a much bigger deal, a much more important deal in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory."
Trump has said his chief negotiator for Middle East peace will be his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has already been meeting with influential Arab leaders, such as Jordan's King Abdullah and UAE ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba.
"I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people in the past who would never, ever have even thought about doing this," Trump said, "so we'll see how that works."
Sachs said that Trump seems to think the regional approach is new.
"It's not," he said, pointing to a 2001 Saudi initiative that proposed Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for peace with the Palestinians and Syria and an independent Palestinian state whose capital was East Jerusalem.
Source: The New York Times, CNN, AFP and Reuters
Quotes from Trump-Bibi conference
Trump: With this visit, the United States again reaffirms our unbreakable bond with our cherished ally Israel.
TWO STATES... OR ONE?
Trump: So I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.
I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians -- if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best.
Trump: The Israelis are going to have to show some flexibility, which is hard... I think our new concept that we've been discussing actually for a while is something that allows them to show more flexibility than they have in the past.
As far as settlements, I would like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.
Trump: I think the Palestinians have to get rid of some of that hate that they're taught from a very young age. They're taught tremendous hate. I have seen what they're taught... it starts in the school room, and they have to acknowledge Israel.
Netanyahu: First, the Palestinians must recognise the Jewish state. They have to stop calling for Israel's destruction.
Second, in any peace agreement, Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.
Netanyahu: 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, but increasingly as an ally.
I believe that under your leadership, this change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace. Let us seize this moment together.
Trump: The security challenges faced by Israel are enormous, including the threat of Iran's nuclear ambitions, which I've talked a lot about. One of the worst deals I've ever seen is the Iran deal. My administration has already imposed new sanctions on Iran, and I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing -- I mean ever -- a nuclear weapon.
Trump: We reject unfair and one-sided actions against Israel at the United Nations, which has treated Israel, in my opinion, very, very unfairly.
EMBASSY TO JERUSALEM?
Trump: As far as the embassy moving to Jerusalem, I would love to see that happen. We're looking at it very, very strongly. We're looking at it with great care. Believe me. We'll see what happens. Okay?