There was predictable consternation in Beijing and among foreign policy experts in Washington. They fretted that Mr. Trump was recklessly undoing the landmark China diplomacy of Richard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong — fears that were misplaced, it turned out.
Last week, Mr. Trump telephoned President Xi Jinping and promised to abide by “one China,” having discovered that Mr. Xi was not willing to talk to him until he disavowed his statement. For Mr. Trump, one China was a bargaining chip; for the Chinese, it was nonnegotiable.
On Wednesday, seasoned Middle East peacemakers predicted a similar cycle for comments on the two-state solution. Mr. Trump, they said, would quickly discover that there is no “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian conflict — at least none that would be remotely acceptable to both sides.
If the president is serious about peace, which he appeared to be in his news conference on Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, they said he would inevitably return to two states, an article of faith for presidents since Bill Clinton first endorsed it in January 2001.
“Trump found his way back to ‘one China’ because China is too strong,” said Martin S. Indyk, special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration. “He will find his way back in the case of the Palestinians because he’s not going to be able to budge them.”
There is nothing wrong with questioning old assumptions, Mr. Trump’s defenders point out. Even President Barack Obama said shortly before he left office that his successor’s willingness to think outside the box was refreshing. The problem, several analysts said, is that Mr. Trump often does not seem to grasp the complicated logic behind the principles he is jettisoning.
“He has good intentions but a lack of understanding,” said Mr. Indyk, now the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution. “It’s the perfect example of a naïve American thinking he can wave his magic wand and solve the world’s problems.”
Standing next to an inscrutable Mr. Netanyahu on Wednesday, Mr. Trump talked about two-state and one-state formulations as though they were interchangeable — items on a Chinese menu, in the words of another Middle East negotiator, Aaron David Miller.
“I like the one that both parties like,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
There was a time, Mr. Trump acknowledged, when he believed the two-state approach was the easiest way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But, he continued, and his words trailed off as though he seemed to recognize he was about to wade into treacherous diplomatic waters.
Mr. Trump was getting at something: There is no longer much hope for a two-state solution, given Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing government and the exhausted leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Rather than parse the president’s words for policy implications, some experts said, one could read them as a statement of his intent to be realistic and flexible.
“In many ways, Trump was more forthcoming than anybody would have expected,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “He was basically saying, ‘I’m open to anything, as long as it gets me to peace.’ ”
Nor did Mr. Trump try to discredit the two-state formula; he merely opened the door to other options. Once Palestinian officials get over their reflexive indignation, said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, they will focus on his enthusiasm for a deal rather than obsess over semantics.
The trouble with that theory is that presidents, by definition, make policy whenever they speak. In the case of China, Mr. Trump may have thought he was simply defending his decision to take a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan after the election. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy,” he told Fox News, “unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
“We’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation,” he continued, “with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.”
For Mr. Trump, “one China” is one element in a complex, unsatisfying relationship. But for China’s leaders, who have viewed Taiwan as a breakaway province since the Communist revolution, it is the bedrock of their international legitimacy. They were not willing to return to business as usual until Mr. Trump recanted his comment.
In its report of the call between the two leaders, the Chinese state news media characterized Mr. Trump almost as though he were a wayward student. The American president “stressed that he fully understood the great importance for the U.S. government to respect the One China policy” and that “the U.S. government adheres to the One China policy.”
Thus ended a break with tradition that lasted barely two months.