Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was engaged in post-election damage control on Thursday, as he sought to rewrite his campaign pledge to oppose a Palestinian state, which has triggered heavy U.S. and European criticism.
“I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change,” Netanyahu explained in an interview with MSNBC.
“I never retracted my speech in Bar Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said.
But, said the prime minister, “If you want to get peace, you’ve got to get the Palestinian leadership to abandon their pact with Hamas and engage in genuine negotiations with Israel for an achievable peace. We have to also make sure that we don’t have ISIS coming in to that territory. It’s only two dozen miles away from our border.”
However, later on Thursday, the U.S. was not satisfied with Netanyahu’s clarifications. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Washington will “still evaluate” its policy on the Middle East peace process.
Earnest also condemned Netanyahu’s suggestion that Arabs were voting “in droves” against him as a “cynical Election Day tactic.”
“Certainly, the prime minister’s comments from a few days ago called into question his commitment to that” [two-state solution], State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Thursday.
“We believe he changed his position,” she continued. “We can’t forget about those comments.”
In a related development, President Obama called Prime Minister Netanyahu on Thursday to congratulate the Prime Minister on his victory in Tuesday’s elections. According to a statement by the White House, “the President emphasized the importance the United States places on our close military, intelligence, and security cooperation with Israel, which reflects the deep and abiding partnership between both countries.
“The President and the Prime Minister agreed to continue consultations on a range of regional issues, including the difficult path forward to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The President reaffirmed the United States’ long-standing commitment to a two-state solution that results in a secure Israel alongside a sovereign and viable Palestine. On Iran, the President reiterated that the United States is focused on reaching a comprehensive deal with Iran that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and verifiably assures the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program,” the statement concluded.
Robert Sugarman, Chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, welcomed the statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today clarifying earlier remarks, saying, “It is at the negotiating table, not international forums or agencies that hopes for peace can be advanced. We believe that the Prime Minister’s reaffirmations of his positions should be accepted, and, as the new government is formed the parties should work to enhance cooperation between the democratic allies and advance the special U.S.-Israel ties.”
Netanyahu’s interview came after Obama administration officials were quoted in American media saying that Netanyahu’s apparent policy switch would come at a price.
“We are now in a reality where the Israeli government no longer supports direct negotiations,” a senior White House official was quoted by The New York Times as saying. The U.S. position has been to support direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he said, “Therefore, we clearly have to factor that into our decisions going forward.” It was more than “just optics,” but a policy statement on record, an official told Politico.
More ominously, the administration officials said if direct talks were no longer on the Israeli agenda, then the U.S. may now allow a Security Council resolution to proceed, which could set a deadline for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines. Until now, Israel has counted on the U.S. to steadfastly oppose it.
Steven Simon, a former National Security Council official under Obama, was quoted by CNN saying that, given the strain with Netanyahu, the White House might now consider paring down American diplomatic support for Israel at the U.N.
In addition, it was said that President Obama would not “waste his time” on relations with Israel, leaving it instead to Secretary of State John Kerry.
“The president is a pretty pragmatic person and if he felt it would be useful, he will certainly engage,” the senior administration official told the Times. “But he’s not going to waste his time.”
More moderate voices were heard, however. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had criticized Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, said in a statement Wednesday that she hopes everyone will make fixing the U.S.-Israel relationship a priority, “regardless of political affiliation.” But she also stressed that Israel must remain committed to a two-state solution “despite campaign rhetoric.”
New York Rep. Eliot Engel downplayed Netanyahu’s comments barring a Palestinian state, and said people shouldn’t “read too much into it.”
“In the rhetoric and the heat of campaigns there are lots of things that are said,” Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN. “I think that when they get shaken out we’ll find out that not much has changed.”
It wasn’t only the U.S. government that took Netanyahu’s remarks about a Palestinian state as a change in policy and reacted badly.
France and Germany called on Netanyahu to stick to the two-state solution and the European Union counseled calm at a “crucial moment.” The United Nations said the only way for Israel to remain democratic was to continue with the peace process, which sees two states as the final objective.
An EU diplomat suggested to Reuters on Wednesday that, if Netanyahu remains intransigent, the EU will consider pushing ahead with trade restrictions and other measures against Israel.
Members of the Bundestag’s German-Israel group praised Israeli democracy in general but seemed appalled at the rough treatment of the cherished peace process, noting “with great concern the rejection of a Palestinian state by Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
In the MSNBC interview, Netanyahu was also grilled about his Election Day comments urging Likud supporters to vote because Arab voters were going to the polls en masse.
He clarified that his words were directed at a “massive foreign funded effort” to try to get out votes for a specific party (the United List), which he called “an amalgamation of Islamists and other anti-Israel groups.
“I said when that happens, make sure we get out our vote,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to suppress a vote, I was trying to get something to counter a foreign-funded effort to get votes that are intended to topple my party, and I was calling on our voters to come out.”
When asked point-blank if he was “a racist,” the Israeli prime minister replied: “I’m not.”
Pressure to return to the peace process came from the U.N., as well.
Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor responded, “The United Nations may disagree with the policies of the Israeli government, but there is one fact that can’t be disputed — that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”
“If the U.N. is so concerned about the future of the Palestinian people, it should be asking why President [Mahmoud] Abbas is in the 10th year of a five-year presidential term,” Proser said in a statement.