WASHINGTON — President Trump, in formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday, declared that the United States still supported a two-state solution to settle the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, provided it was “agreed to by both sides.”
For the first time in his 26 years as a peacemaker, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians did not agree.
Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a steadfast advocate for a Palestinian state, said in an interview on Thursday that Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel “have managed to destroy that hope.” He embraced a radical shift in the P.L.O.’s goals — to a single state, but with Palestinians enjoying the same civil rights as Israelis, including the vote.
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“They’ve left us with no option,” he said. “This is the reality. We live here. Our struggle should focus on one thing: equal rights.”
Mr. Erekat’s change of heart is unlikely to change Palestinian policy. The dream of a Palestinian state is too deeply ingrained in a generation of its leaders for the Palestinian Authority to abandon it now. Israel would be unlikely to accede to equal rights, because granting a vote to millions of Palestinians would eventually lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
But the fact that Mr. Erekat is speaking openly about it attests to the turmoil caused in the Middle East by Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem. More so than the protests that erupted in the West Bank, which injured dozens of people but were less intense than expected, the comments of senior Palestinians like Mr. Erekat captured the profound sense of despair.
Administration officials strenuously reject the argument that Mr. Trump has foreclosed a two-state solution. He recommitted himself to brokering what he has called the “ultimate deal” between the two sides, they said. He studiously avoided taking a position on the eventual borders or sovereignty of Jerusalem. And he called for status quo in the administration of the Jewish and Muslim holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.
“We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians,” Mr. Trump said.
Beyond the president’s words, there were other signs he is serious about his intentions. On the same day that he signed his name with a John Hancock-like flourish to a proclamation recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, he quietly signed another document that will delay the move of the American Embassy to the city for at least six months — and probably much longer.
White House officials insist that Mr. Trump’s decision was driven by practical and logistical, not political, considerations. The State Department, they said, cannot open a functioning embassy in Jerusalem on the timetable stipulated under a 1995 law that requires the president to sign a national-security waiver every six months to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.
But putting off the move avoids a tangible symbol of America’s new policy and spares the White House a series of decisions — like where in the city to place the embassy — that would begin to define the geography of Mr. Trump’s deliberately general statement about Jerusalem.
“Avoiding a move of the embassy is a way of avoiding geographic definition,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel. “Avoiding any geographic definition of their recognition of Jerusalem looks like their effort to keep the peace process alive.”
Legal experts said there was nothing in the 1995 law that would prevent the Trump administration from simply hanging a sign outside the existing American consulate in Jerusalem and calling it the embassy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States hastily set up embassies in temporary quarters in the capitals of newly independent republics.
“I would be surprised if the State Department interpreted the Jerusalem Embassy Act as requiring it to break ground on a new embassy facility or take other such steps,” said Scott R. Anderson, a David M. Rubenstein fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“The plain language of the statute only requires that the secretary of state determine and report to Congress that the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem has officially opened,” he said.
Other former Middle East diplomats said the decision to delay the embassy move was far less important than the symbolic weight of Mr. Trump’s statement on Jerusalem.
“This was trying to be too clever by half,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a Princeton professor and former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “If they think that anybody is going to be fooled into thinking this makes their diplomacy credible, they’re kidding themselves.”
Likewise, some longtime Middle East observers said Mr. Erekat’s talk of a one-state solution reflected anger rather than a watershed change in the Palestinian position. Given Israel’s probable rejection of equal rights, American and Israeli supporters of a two-state solution said that option, for all intents and purposes, remained the only game in town.
“I don’t want to minimize the hurt the Palestinians feel,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But there was a duality to Trump’s message that has gotten lost.”
Mr. Trump, he said, was not closing the door to negotiations on borders and sovereignty. “Both parts should be heard,” he said. While he questioned the timing of the move, he said the Palestinians could return to the table when tempers cool.
“Right now their anger is such that they probably can’t hear this,” Mr. Makovsky said. “But if he presents a plan in the first quarter, are you not going to want to hear what it is? The Palestinians still think Trump’s enough of a bulldozer that if he gave something to the Israelis on a Wednesday, he’s capable of giving something to the Palestinians on a Thursday.”
In his interview, Mr. Erekat lumped in Mr. Trump’s move on Jerusalem with the administration’s threat to close the P.L.O.’s mission in Washington and other threats to cut funding to the Palestinians.
“These people,” he said of Mr. Trump and his Middle East team, “are more Israeli than Israel.”
Mr. Erekat said he planned to push within the Palestinian National Council, the P.L.O.’s parliament, for a shift in strategy. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, hinted at such a move in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September.
But even if Mr. Erekat were able to persuade Mr. Abbas to give up the two-state dream, it would be a wrenching change for a generation of Palestinian leaders who made the difficult journey to coming to terms with their diminished territory after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.
“It’s hard to see how you can go down that route without at some stage divesting yourself of a semblance of a self-governing authority,” said Daniel Levy, the London-based president of the U.S./Middle East Project. “You’ve got to call time on the Palestinian Authority, which never became a state.”
Instead, Mr. Levy said he believed that the peace process, and the Palestinians, were in a “transitional period,” in which the two-state solution had failed for now. But he added, “what people have done can be undone.”