President Donald Trump and his envoys are sending mixed messages about their support for an independent Palestinian state, confusing a world that has traditionally looked to America for leadership on one of the Mideast's most intractable conflicts.
After Trump broke with decades of precedent by backing away from U.S. insistence on a "two-state solution," his envoy to the United Nations, Ambassador Nikki Haley, said "we absolutely support a two-state solution." As Haley addressed reporters at the U.N., Trump's nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was telling the Senate he "would be delighted" with such an agreement, while expressing skepticism that Palestinians were prepared to take the necessary steps to make such a deal possible.
To be sure, it's somewhat a matter of semantics. The White House has argued there's no daylight between what Trump said before his meeting this week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and what others in his administration have declared.
But this is the Middle East, where seemingly innocuous comments can be explosive and every word uttered by the United States, its leaders and diplomats becomes tortuously parsed by partisans on all sides.
"All these phrases are loaded, and they're going to take on a life of their own," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It was not a good way to begin, because it's going to distract everyone from the job at hand, which is to end the current impasse and engage the parties."
Until these last days, the U.S. position had been rather clear. The last three presidents had advocated the emergence of an independent, sovereign Palestinian country in most of the territory that Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast War. Land swaps agreed to by both sides would allow some Jewish settlements built in east Jerusalem or the West Bank to become part of Israel. The existence of a recognized nation of Palestine would mean the end of Israel's occupation.
"I'm looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like," Trump, with Netanyahu at his side, said Wednesday.
There is no consensus about what a one-state solution means. A majority of Israelis and Palestinians oppose a single, "binational" state that would include both populations. Opponents say such an arrangement would eventually force Israel either to lose its Jewish majority or rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians lacking full rights, a scenario the Palestinians wouldn't willingly accept.
While Trump kept open the traditional, two-state idea as an option, he is likely to find that the Palestinians' supporters in the region — which include key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group — won't entertain anything short of Palestinian statehood.
The administration's lack of precision illustrated a broader challenge it is facing as dramatic policy shifts are announced from the Oval Office, sometimes after little coordination with other agencies. That has made it hard for Trump's government to speak with a single voice.
The State Department, which spearheaded Mideast peace efforts for past Republican and Democratic presidents, was caught off-guard when the White House, on the eve of Netanyahu's visit, signaled its shift away from full-throated backing of the two-state solution. Officials then had to pivot after Haley's declaration of support for the previous U.S. position on two states. Still, Haley echoed Trump by saying it was up to Israelis and Palestinians to come up with a workable solution.
The result for the world has been confusion. After meeting in Germany with new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault lamented that the U.S. position on Mideast peace had become "vague and preoccupying."
Ayrault said he told Tillerson the two-state solution was the only option, and that another, unspecified idea Tillerson had floated "wouldn't be fair nor equitable." That position was echoed from afar by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The Trump administration has been similarly ambiguous about other foreign policy matters, including the Iran nuclear deal. As a candidate, Trump vowed to renegotiate the accord. As president, he has continued deploring it. But EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Trump's team told her the U.S. was committed to implementing the seven-nation deal. France's Ayrault, however, said he got the impression from Tillerson that the U.S. wanted to review it from scratch.