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What Trump's Break From Tradition Means For The U.S.-Israel Relationship


President Trump has taken a first swing at Middle East peace. He met yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And when asked about a basic notion in recent decades of Middle East peace, a two-state solution, Trump said he supports whatever works.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I'm looking at two-state and one-state. And I like the one that both parties like.


TRUMP: I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.

INSKEEP: That's Benjamin Netanyahu chuckling in the background. Trump was referring to a difference that is not small. A two-state solution means an independent Palestine comes into being beside Israel. A one-state solution means Palestinians permanently become part of Israel. And they'd be so numerous, it would be hard for Israel to remain both democratic and a Jewish state.

There's so much to discuss here. And we'll discuss as much as we can with Elliott Abrams, who is a veteran U.S. diplomat now with the Council on Foreign Relations and who just missed out on a high post in the Trump administration. Mr. Abrams, welcome to the program. Good morning.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Thanks. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Could you explain to people why aren't you in a top job after being widely promoted for it and having met with President Trump?

ABRAMS: (Laughter) Criticism of him during the primary campaigns last year. He didn't like it.

INSKEEP: He personally didn't like it, or the people around him didn't like it?

ABRAMS: Well, hard to say, but I think he personally didn't like it. We had a perfectly good meeting when I met with him, but then I think he looked at some of the comments from last year during the primaries and found them unacceptable.

INSKEEP: You had said something about how people should keep their distance, conservatives or Republicans should keep their distance from Donald Trump as he was running for president. Was that the problem?

ABRAMS: You know, I don't know. I said a bunch of things, frankly. It was a pretty - you will recall - fairly hot primary campaign. He gave as good as he got. You could argue he gave better, since he won. And normally people, you know, look to the future rather than the past after that kind of hot election period, but the president didn't.

INSKEEP: What does it say about him that he didn't?

ABRAMS: Well, let's talk about the Middle East.


INSKEEP: I think you've suggested what it says about him. I do want to talk about the Middle East, but before I get there, I want to ask about something else given the turmoil at the National Security Council. The National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is out amid questions about his communications with Russia. Are you glad not to be in the administration at the moment?

ABRAMS: No. I think, you know, look, we have one government at a time, and we hope that it works as well as possible. And this turmoil, if it's correct that Mr. Harward is going to come in, we can all hope is a temporary phenomenon.

INSKEEP: Oh, you're referring to one of the people who's been mentioned as a possible choice for - Vice Admiral Harward, who's one of the possible choices for national security adviser.

ABRAMS: Correct. And he was a member of the National Security Council staff actually in the George W. Bush Administration when I was. And, you know, we just need to get somebody in there and start rebuilding that staff.

INSKEEP: Somebody who's professional, you're saying?

ABRAMS: Yeah. I mean, it doesn't have to be a military person, though I guess it's likely to be. But, you know, it's been a month, and we're now - the country in a sense is now behind by a month in getting a National Security Council that functions well in place.

INSKEEP: And yet the world is moving on, including in the Middle East, so let's talk about that. You watched the president with Benjamin Netanyahu. He says two-state solution, one-state, whatever works. I'll leave that to the parties. He also turns to Prime Minister Netanyahu and says, would you kindly cut out the settlement activity on the West Bank for a while? What did you make of all that?

ABRAMS: Well, I think the first thing to make of it is that the president is oddly enough a peace processor, that is he doesn't want to walk away from it. He wants to make the great deal that has eluded previous presidents. And in doing so, he seems to be adopting an approach that is called outside in. What - in other words, you don't try to make Israeli-Palestinian peace and then make Israeli-Arab peace. You start with the Arabs. You start with a regional approach. That was pretty clear in the remarks yesterday.

INSKEEP: Start with the Arabs, meaning that all the neighbors of Israel get involved, is that what you're saying?

ABRAMS: The neighbors Jordan and Egypt and the Gulf Arab states whose relations with Israel have been improving in the last let's say five or 10 years. You try to improve those relations and use them to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. And to do that, he did ask Netanyahu to show some restraint. Hold back on settlements was, I think, the term.

INSKEEP: Oh, because if you're Saudi Arabia, you don't like that settlement activity at all. It's very, very awkward for you.

ABRAMS: Well I don't know how much you care about it frankly, but it probably riles up the public so it becomes a domestic political matter. I don't think this is going to work, I'd have to say. But I think it's very well worth trying because it brings to the table something of value to both Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis want peace with the Arab states. And Palestinians want support from the Arab states. So trying a regional approach I think is an intelligent thing to do.

INSKEEP: There are some Israelis talking about this one-state solution who'll just say go for the one-state solution, never allow a Palestinian state. That's too much of a security threat. And if it makes Israel less democratic or undemocratic, so be it. Is that a viable alternative for Israel?

ABRAMS: No. It's not a viable alternative for anybody. The bulk of Israelis don't want it. The bulk of Palestinians don't want it. I just don't think the one-state solution is a solution. And I don't think - it's a road I would say that just goes to a dead end. So I don't take that seriously at all.

I do think what the president's saying there is basically find a solution. Let's find some solution, which has been the Arab attitude for a long time, that is whatever deal Israelis and Palestinians can make, we will accept. That's been the Arab position in many cases. And I think that's pretty much what the president is saying.

INSKEEP: Just a few seconds left. I want to ask you about David Friedman, the president's nominee for ambassador to Israel. Five former ambassadors to Israel have opposed this choice. Would you support him?

ABRAMS: Yeah. I know him. I think he's a very smart person, distinguished lawyer. Let's see what the hearings are like. And anyway, you know, ambassadors don't make policy. You heard the president talk about Jerusalem yesterday and say that he's going to hold back on that. He's going to slow that down.

INSKEEP: Moving the embassy to Jerusalem, right.

ABRAMS: Right, policy is made in Washington.

INSKEEP: Including policy about settlements, which Friedman very much supports.

ABRAMS: Settlements, Jerusalem, it's all done in Washington.

INSKEEP: Elliott Abrams, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much.

ABRAMS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's at the Council on Foreign Relations, former U.S. diplomat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.