Trump noncommittal to two-state Mideast solution

WASHINGTON (BP) -- President Trump appeared to back off support for a two-state solution in the Middle East Wednesday (Feb. 15), with some Southern Baptists voicing different perspectives on relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

President Trump appeared to back off support for a two-state solution in the Middle East Wednesday (Feb. 15) when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House.
Screen capture from The New York Times
The United States has officially supported separate Jewish and Palestinian states for 15 years but Trump called that stance into question at a joint White House news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Less than a month into his administration, Trump told reporters he is "looking at two-state and one-state, and I like 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," he said, adding, "But honestly, ... if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best."

Trump also said he would "love to see" the U.S. embassy in Israel move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His administration is "looking at it very, very strongly," he said.

Trump's welcome to Netanyahu early in his presidency served as a contrast with the Obama administration's actions regarding Israel in its final days.

On Dec. 23, the United States abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the territory west of the Jordan River that Israel gained control of in the six-day war of 1967. The Obama administration could have vetoed the resolution but refused to do so. Five days later, Secretary of State John Kerry strongly criticized Israel in a speech.

In his comments at the news conference, Netanyahu declined to comment directly on the two-state solution but affirmed the requirements for peace he has cited for several years.

"First, the Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state," he said. "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 told reporters. "Because if we don't, we know what will happen -- because otherwise we'll get another radical Islamic terrorist state in the Palestinian areas exploding the peace, exploding the Middle East."

The Palestinians have spurned both prerequisites, he said.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Thursday (Feb. 16), "Our Lord Jesus is Jewish. Christians therefore should be concerned extremely about global anti-Semitism. Israel was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust and embodies a safeguard against the virulent violence we have seen over the centuries against the Jewish people.

"The safety of Israel is important, for everyone, as is Israel's right to exist at all, which is constantly questioned and threatened by enemies of the Jewish state and of the Jewish people," Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press. "We pray for peace in the Middle East and for those leaders seeking to accomplish such peace with wisdom and justice."

Netanyahu told reporters he believes a "great opportunity for peace" exists in "a regional approach" that would involve "our newfound Arab partners," apparently the governments of certain Middle East countries.

At the news conference, Trump told Netanyahu he would "like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit."

Netanyahu said the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank "is not the core of the conflict nor does it really drive the conflict." He acknowledged, however, it is an issue that "has to be resolved in the context of peace negotiations."

Two Southern Baptist laymen expressed divergent views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian discord.

Rich Hastings, a pro-Israel advocate in the Kansas City, Mo., area, told BP he thinks Trump "was not endorsing a one-state solution but rather keeping options open for negotiations. It sends a clear message that he won't be manipulated or at least that is the argument."

Hastings said he does not support a two-state solution. For one thing, "the land was given by God" to Israel, he said in written remarks.

Essentially, Trump "spoke Genesis 12:3a -- 'I will bless those who bless you' -- in his meeting" with Netanyahu, Hastings told BP. Trump "accepted the political reality that the prime minister deals with every day with members of his own party pushing a more aggressive establishment of settlements [in the West Bank] and those opposing him within the state of Israel" and the United Nations, he said.

Hastings -- a member of First Baptist Church in Raytown, Mo. -- travels to Israel once or twice a year to lead group tours or on trade missions. He spent a month last year in Israel, where he taught at the Israel College of the Bible and with Chosen People Ministries. Hastings is the Kansas City chair of the Christian arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Bruce Kugler, a lawyer in Illinois, told BP many Palestinian Christians affirm Israel's legitimacy but are concerned to acknowledge it as a Jewish state would institutionalize "discrimination against religious minorities, including Christians."

Kugler -- a member of Living Faith Baptist Church in Sherman, Ill., and the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists -- expressed concern about the impact of Israel's settlement expansion on Christians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"How Israel's policies affect our brothers and sisters in Christ can no longer be ignored," Kugler said in written comments. "Any expansion must ensure that property is not confiscated from Christians or other Palestinians.... [The] United States may have an unbreakable bond with Israel but evangelical Christians in the USA have an unbreakable eternal bond with Palestinian Christians."

Christians, he said, "are to love and support both the Jewish people and the Palestinians, for there is no partiality with God," he said.

During a trip in late 2016, Kugler presented copies of a 2014 resolution adopted by the Illinois Baptist State Association to Christian leaders in Israel and Palestinian territories. The resolution expressed support for the Palestinian church and urged prayer for peace.

Messengers to the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention meeting approved a resolution disagreeing with boycott and divestment efforts aimed at Israel. The resolution expressed support for "the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state and reject[ed] any activities that attack that right by promoting economic, cultural, and academic boycotts against Israel." It also urged prayer for peace and "the salvation of Israel."

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. BP senior editor Art Toalston contributed to this report.
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