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AIPAC urges Obama to strengthen ties with Netanyahu

Group criticizes White House plan to reassess its approach to Israel over prime minister’s short-lived rejection of Palestinian state

US President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press after a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, March 3, 2015, in Washington, DC. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)
US President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press after a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, March 3, 2015, in Washington, DC. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Thursday night called on Washington to strengthen its ties with Israel following the reelection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and castigated the White House for its cool response to the Israeli leader’s statements that — contrary to his preelection stance — he supports the two-state solution.

“Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly and clearly reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” a statement by AIPAC said.

“Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the US,” it continued. “In contrast to their comments, we urge the administration to further strengthen ties with America’s most reliable and only truly democratic ally in the Middle East.

“A solid and unwavering relationship between the US and Israel is in the national security interests of both countries and reflects the values that we both cherish.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

Netanyahu, in an interview with Fox News Thursday night, stated once again that he had not backed out of his support for a Palestinian state, but simply did not see the formation of such a state as a viable goal at this time.

“I didn’t retract any of the things I said in my speech six years ago, calling for a solution in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes a Jewish state,” Netanyahu told Fox.

“I said that the conditions for that, today, are not achievable for a simple reason: (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud) Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians, rejects consistently the acceptance of a Jewish state. He’s made a pact with the Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, that calls for our destruction. And the conditions in the Middle East have changed to the point where any territory we withdraw from is immediately taken up by Iranian-backed terrorists or by ISIS (Islamic State).”

Amid new tensions between the two allies, US President Barack Obama on Thursday told Netanyahu that the US is reassessing its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace in light of Netanyahu’s preelection comments rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In the telephone call, Obama extended congratulations to Netanyahu for his election victory two days ago. But a White House official said Obama also raised Netanyahu’s critical comments about Israeli Arabs ahead of the election, which the White House has denounced as a “cynical” effort to mobilize voters.

In a separate statement, the White House said Obama stressed the United States’ close security cooperation with Israel, but also emphasized the US commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

On another divisive topic, the statement said Obama addressed negotiations with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program and said he was focused on a deal that would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran.

In another interview Thursday with MSNBC, Netanyahu walked back from his earlier remarks about rejecting a two-state solution, saying he could support a demilitarized Palestinian state if conditions in the region change.

But White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said Netanyahu’s earlier comment “raises questions about his commitment to a two-state solution.”

Earnest specifically mentioned that in the past the US has repeatedly cited the goal of creating a Palestinian state when it has intervened on behalf of Israel in the United Nations. But he sidestepped questions about whether any reassessment of US policy would mean putting distance between the US and Israel at the UN.

Earnest also criticized anti-Arab rhetoric used by Netanyahu’s party in the lead-up to the election as a “cynical election day tactic [that] was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab Israeli votes.”

Asked whether the subject came up in the phone call, the White House official said, “In his phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the president made the same points in private that the administration has been making in public.”

Tensions between the White House and Netanyahu escalated as the Israeli elections drew nearer. The White House was especially annoyed when Netanyahu accepted an invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress earlier this month without consulting the administration.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough will give a speech Monday to a major advocacy group that opposes Netanyahu.

McDonough’s address to the J Street group indicates that the administration will seek to strengthen voices that challenge Netanyahu. J Street is an Israel advocacy group that often criticizes the Israeli government — and especially Netanyahu.

US Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) said Thursday that “Obama should spend less time trying to change the government of Israel, a vibrant democracy and America’s closest ally in the Middle East, and more time trying to change the government of Iran, a terror-sponsoring regime that exports terrorism, has killed more Americans than the Islamic State, and is now trying to get nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party swept the national elections on Tuesday, taking nearly 25% of the vote, winning 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

The landslide victory over the Zionist Union, which won 24 seats, places Netanyahu in a secure position to form a governing coalition.

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