WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Wednesday that the United States would no longer insist on a Palestinian state as part of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, backing away from a policy that has underpinned America’s role in Middle East peacemaking since the Clinton administration.
“I’m looking at two-state and one-state” formulations, Mr. Trump said, appearing in a joint news conference at the White House with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. “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.”
Mr. Trump’s comments were a striking departure from two decades of diplomatic orthodoxy, and they raised a host of thorny questions about the viability of his position. The Palestinians are highly unlikely to accept anything short of a sovereign state, and a single Israeli state encompassing the Palestinians would either become undemocratic or no longer Jewish, given the faster growth rate of the Arab population.
Mr. Trump did not address these dynamics, preferring to focus on his confidence that he could produce a breakthrough agreement. “I think we’re going to make a deal,” Mr. Trump said, describing that as personally important to him. “It might be a better and better deal than people in this room even understand.”
But even as Mr. Trump drastically reoriented American policy, he told Mr. Netanyahu to stop building new housing in the West Bank for the moment. “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” he told Mr. Netanyahu, whose government has been racing to announce new settlement construction in the weeks since Mr. Trump’s inauguration.
The president also stressed that Israel would have to be flexible in any future peace talks. “As with any successful negotiation, both sides will have to make compromises,” Mr. Trump said.
Turning to Mr. Netanyahu, he asked, “You know that, right?”
Mr. Netanyahu responded with a smile. “Both sides,” he said, pointedly emphasizing the first word.
Nonetheless, Mr. Netanyahu, who nominally supports a two-state solution, quickly embraced Mr. Trump’s declaration, saying he preferred to deal with “substance” rather than “labels” in negotiating with the Palestinians.
He noted that the concept of the two-state solution meant different things to different people in the region. And he repeated his two prerequisites — that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that Israel maintain security control over the entire West Bank. The obstacle to peace, he said, is Palestinian hate, as demonstrated by building statues to those who carry out terrorist attacks and paying their families salaries. “This is the source of the conflict,” he said.
Mr. Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, have been exploring an approach called the outside-in strategy, enlisting Arab states in the region that already have found common cause with Israel against their mutual enemy Iran to help broker a settlement with the Palestinians. But it is not at all clear that Palestinians would ever accept an arrangement that did not leave them with a state of their own.
Until now, Mr. Trump’s team has largely avoided conversations with Palestinian leaders. But Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, met with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in Ramallah in the West Bank on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.
The idea of an independent Palestinian state comprising the West Bank and Gaza became the central theme of Middle East peacemaking in the 1990s after the Oslo accords were signed. Bill Clinton was the first president to endorse a two-state solution, saying in a speech in January 2001, just two weeks before leaving office, that the conflict would never be settled without “a sovereign, viable Palestinian state.”
His successor, George W. Bush, picked that up later that year, becoming the first president to make it official American policy. Mr. Obama considered a two-state solution the unquestionable bedrock of Washington’s approach to the region.
But momentum for the idea of side-by-side states has ebbed not just in Washington but the region, where many Israelis and Palestinians have given up hope or changed their minds about the concept.
Mr. Netanyahu arrived at a tumultuous time at the White House, just two days after Mr. Trump forced out his national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, for withholding the truth about a conversation with Russia’s ambassador.
Mr. Netanyahu lost probably his most important ally against Iran with Mr. Flynn’s departure. During last year’s campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized Mr. Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran as a terrible deal, but his administration has indicated that it does not intend to rip it up, at least not immediately, even as it imposes new sanctions on Tehran over its recent ballistic missile tests.
At the news conference, Mr. Trump again called the agreement “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen” but said nothing about abandoning it or even renegotiating it. Instead, he simply vowed to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power. “I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing — I mean ever — a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu wants to ensure that if the deal is not scrapped, it is enforced rigorously, a goal with much sympathy in the White House. But Mr. Flynn’s departure seemed to ensure that the conversations between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump would focus more on making peace with the Palestinians than the prime minister might have preferred.
Mr. Netanyahu has looked forward to Mr. Trump’s ascension, the first time in four terms as prime minister that he has had a Republican president as a partner. After years of tension with Mr. Obama, who pressed Israel to make more concessions for peace, Mr. Netanyahu anticipated vigorous support from the new president.
But as Israel began announcing thousands of more housing units in the West Bank in the weeks after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the new president modulated his posture. He told an Israeli newspaper last week that more Israeli settlements in the West Bank “don’t help the process” and that he did not believe that “going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” He also backed away from his campaign promise to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, saying that it is “not an easy decision” and “we will see what happens.”
The comments surprised some in Israel, but could also be helpful to Mr. Netanyahu, who could use them to fend off pressure from pro-settlement leaders on his right who have been pushing him to take more assertive moves.
Still, if Mr. Netanyahu viewed Mr. Trump’s arrival as license to do as he pleased without American interference, he may be surprised that the new president seems inclined to make a serious investment in forging a peace deal.
Mr. Trump’s assignment to Mr. Kushner to focus on the matter has been taken as a sign of determination. Although he has no experience as a diplomat, Mr. Kushner has what other negotiators in the past have not always had: the complete trust of the president.
“Authority matters,” said Dennis Ross, who served multiple presidents as a Middle East negotiator. “People in the region can smell it when negotiators don’t have it, and I think having the authority counts a lot.”