WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump's national security adviser warned Palestinians on Wednesday that Israeli settlements will continue to expand because rising anti-Semitism around the world means more Jews will immigrate to Israel.
Addressing many hot-button global issues in a speech and discussion with foreign diplomats to the United States, Robert O'Brien also said the president hoped to go to Beijing to talk to the Chinese about a three-way nuclear arms control pact with the U.S. and Russia. He said the president still hopes that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will resume nuclear talks with the U.S.
O'Brien defended Trump's Mideast peace plan, which was embraced by Israel but rejected by the Palestinians. O'Brien said the plan is not “perfect,” but urged the Palestinians to negotiate terms of the proposed deal. The deal offers economic benefits that would allow Palestine to become the “Singapore of the Middle East," he said.
The Palestinians have roundly denounced the proposal, which offers them limited self-rule in scattered chunks of territory with a capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem while allowing Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank. Protesters have burned U.S. and Israeli flags as well as posters of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stood with Trump at the White House when he rolled out the plan last week.
“This could be the last opportunity for a two-state solution,” O'Brien said at the Meridian International Center. "The Israeli birth rate is strong and is growing because sadly anti-Semitism in Europe and other places around the world is encouraging more Jews to return to Israel. The settlements are going to continue to expand. If this freeze on settlements doesn't hold. If this peace process doesn't work, it may be physically impossible to have a two-state solution."
It was unusual for a high-level administration official to tie anti-Semitism to the settlements. The Palestinians, as well as much of the international community, view the settlements in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem — territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war — as illegal and a major obstacle to peace. But O'Brien's comments are in line with the Trump administration strongly favoring Israel in the longtime conflict.
O'Brien didn't note that the Palestinian population is growing too in both the Palestinian territories and Israel, according to U.N. statistics. The Palestinian population is growing at roughly 2.4% a year, 33% higher than Israel's.
Those demographic shifts have led previous peacemakers to warn that Israel risks losing its ability to remain both a Jewish state and a democracy without a two-state solution that gives the Palestinians enough inhabitable and arable land to accommodate their growing numbers.
Trump's plan would foresee the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, but would allow Israel to annex all Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as the strategic Jordan Valley.
U.S. officials had discouraged Netanyahu from proceeding with plans to immediately annex any new territory and had played down the possibility that the release of the plan would make any such move imminent. But after the rollout, Netanyahu vowed to bring his West Bank annexation plans to a vote at his next Cabinet meeting just days away.
That surprised and frustrated the Americans. In a series of interviews, Trump's point people on Israel jammed the brakes on annexation, putting greater emphasis on the prospects of Palestinian statehood that Netanyahu was trying to sidestep.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said a U.S.-Israeli committee would need to be formed to ensure that any move matches up with the Trump administration's “conceptual map.” Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a chief architect of the plan, said Israel should wait until after the March 2 Israeli elections before annexing territory.
Any quick move to annex land would galvanize Netanyahu's hard-line base and shift the focus of his reelection campaign away from his legal woes. But annexation also would likely spark an international backlash, and neighboring Jordan, a key player in Middle East peace efforts, has warned against it. It could also foreclose the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution.
Addressing arms control during a question-and-answer session, O'Brien said the administration has been in touch with Russia about what to do about the New START Treaty, which expires in exactly one year. It is the only remaining treaty limiting the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. Russia has expressed a willingness to extend the treaty for five years. Trump wants to pull China into the negotiations, citing China's major defense build-up.
“We think that China is going to need to become involved in any serious arms control negotiation and so we are going to work on those talks in the coming months and year and I'd expect we'll be going to Beijing to talk to the Chinese about how we can reduce the threat of nuclear war,” he said.
O'Brien was also asked about the House vote to impeach Trump for abuse of power for pushing Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election. When the House probed Trump's actions, he instructed White House aides to defy congressional subpoenas, leading to an obstruction charge against the president as well.
“I think it's been a terrible pall that was cast over the United States and in our ability to operate in the foreign policy arena,” he said.
The Senate was poised on Wednesday to acquit Trump on both charges. House Democrats might still summon former national security adviser John Bolton to testify about revelations from his forthcoming book that offer a fresh account of Trump's actions.
Differentiating himself from his predecessor, O'Brien said he has no plans to write a “tell-all” book after he leaves the White House.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.