WASHINGTON — With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu working to establish a new coalition, a top US State Department official warned that the composition of his government, and its approach to the two-state solution, could have serious implications for Washington’s support for Israel, particularly in the United Nations.
“We will be watching very closely to see what happens after a new government is formed on this issue of working toward two states living side by side in peace and security,” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman told a gathering of Reform Jewish leaders near Washington, DC on Monday.
“If the new Israeli government is seen as stepping back from its commitment to a two-state solution — something that all of you, and a vast majority of American Jews, support — that makes our jobs in the international arena a lot tougher because our ability to push back on efforts to internationalize… Israeli-Palestinian issues has depended on our insistence that the best course in achieving a two-state solution is through direct negotiations between the parties,” she said.
Sherman’s comments were the latest in a series of warnings issued by Washington following the March 17 Israeli election. Officials from both the White House and the State Department have cautioned that any perceived backtracking from Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution could mean that the US will not veto attempts to unilaterally push for Palestinian statehood through the United Nations.
In the days after the elections, the US began to signal that it saw Netanyahu — based on preelection comments in which he appeared to disavow a Palestinian state — as backing away from his commitment to a two-state solution. At the time, the White House and the State Department emphasized that they would wait to see how the post-election political climate shaped up before deciding whether — and how — the US would respond. Netanyahu subsequently specified that he remained supportive of a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” but President Barack Obama and other officials indicated that they were not convinced.
The administration’s argument centered around the idea that both Israel and the US have been committed to a two-state solution negotiated by Israel and the Palestinians — and that any deviation from that framework would require a different strategy for achieving Palestinian statehood.
“Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations have been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome,” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said a day after the Israeli election. “Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means that we need to reevaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do, moving forward.”
Like other administration members commenting on the UN policy, Sherman on Monday emphasized Washington’s historical commitment to defend Israel against biased resolutions in the international body.
“We’ve always had Israel’s back in the international arena and we have repeatedly stood up against efforts to delegitimize Israel or single Israel out unfairly, even when it meant to stand alone,” she said. “That has been the case and will continue to be the case. As we said, it’s true that Prime Minister Netanyahu raised questions about his government’s commitment to a two-state solution, in comments he made right before and right after the Israeli election.”
The administration’s perception that Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution has wavered stemmed from an interview with the right-leaning NRG website the day before Israelis went to the polls. Asked about his policy on the Palestinians, Netanyahu had said: “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel. This is the true reality that was created here in the last few years.”
Asked in a follow-up if it was true that no Palestinian state would be established during his premiership if he were reelected, he answered: “Indeed.”
Sherman, who will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif later Monday in New York, also defended the nuclear framework deal with Iran. As the top US negotiator in the talks, she assured her largely Jewish audience that the deal under construction will make Israel and the world safer.
“Every time I hear President Obama talk, I’m always struck about how personally he feels about those issues,” she said. “This deep-seated feeling is what drives his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security. It’s also what drives this administration’s approach to the Iranian nuclear threat. We understand Israel is in a tough neighborhood. That’s why we’ve given Israel more security assistance than any other admin in history…”
“We will have eyes into every part of Iran’s nuclear program from cradle to grave,” she said. “If we detect Iran is trying to break its commitments or violate the agreement, we will have every single option on the table.”