Envoy to Washington defends Netanyahu’s 2-state comments

Israel-US tensions take the lead on US Sunday talk shows; PA observer to UN outlines strategy for statehood resolutions

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Israel's Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, formerly senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israel's Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, formerly senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Israel-US relations took center stage on the Sunday morning political talk shows in America, with Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer vouching for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for a two-state solution, and the Palestinian representative to the United Nations outlining steps for UN action on Palestinian statehood.

In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Dermer said that Netanyahu “didn’t say what the president and others seem to suggest he is saying,” arguing that interpretations of Netanyahu’s preelection statements in the US did not convey the meaning or intent of his comments. “The prime minister is not against a two-state solution with a demilitarized Palestinian state. He has not retracted his vision that he laid out at Bar-Ilan in 2009,” he emphasized.

In comments over the weekend before last Tuesday’s elections, Netanyahu appeared to repudiate his support for a two-state solution, in an apparent last-ditch appeal to settlers and other hard-right voters. Although the prime minister backtracked in interviews after his reelection, reiterating a commitment in principle to a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” US President Barack Obama told The Huffington Post Saturday that his administration is now operating under the assumption that Netanyahu does not envision the creation of a Palestinian state.

But Dermer argued that Netanyahu had framed his comments in light of recent changes to regional geopolitics that made a peace deal difficult or even impossible under current conditions. He listed the growing instability on Israel’s borders, particularly with the ascent of the Islamic State in parts of Syria “eighteen miles from Israel’s borders,” as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s nearly year-long ostensible unity government with Hamas.

“What Israel believes has to happen now is that President Abbas needs to break his alliance with Hamas and come back to serious negotiations with Israel,” Dermer elaborated. The peace process, he said, collapsed not because of Israel, but because Abbas had “joined up with Hamas.”

Dermer has spent the past weeks in Washington as persona non grata in the administration, following his engineering together with Speaker of the House John Boehner of Netanyahu’s address to Congress earlier this month. Some reports suggested that Netanyahu could placate the administration’s ire by recalling Dermer to Jerusalem, but Netanyahu has instead reiterated his support for his longtime confidant, who is also a former Republican activist.

Dermer sounded hesitant when asked about American threats to withdraw its traditional veto of unilateral Palestinian moves at the United Nations. “We hope that won’t happen,” he said. “We know that the US has stood for decades against all these anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.” The passage of a UN resolution to establish a Palestinian state, he said, would “harden Palestinian positions and could prevent peace for decades to come, because no Palestinian leader will move from those positions.”

This would then, he argued, limit the opportunity for a negotiated resolution to the conflict, an outcome which has been — and still is — Washington’s stated policy. Over the past week, Washington has repeatedly signaled that it is considering rescinding its traditional veto, most recently by Obama, in his scathing interview to The Huffington Post.

Palestinian Permanent Observer to the UN Riyad Mansour followed Dermer on the program, calling on the US to do exactly that — exercise “a collective responsibility” in leveraging the United Nations to “defend a two-state solution.” Mansour urged a UN resolution that would mandate a short time-frame for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a second resolution that would specifically condemn Israeli construction across the 1967 Green Line.

“If we do not move in the direction of a two state solution now and we wait, there will never be a two-state solution,” he warned. “What we are doing is legal and peaceful. Settlements are a continuing war crime. They [Israel] are continuing with their policy. We are doing something that is legitimate; they are doing something that is illegal.”

Continuing to reject Palestinian attempts to air grievances in an international framework, Mansour warned, would teach Palestinians that grievances can only be addressed through violence. He also asserted that the Palestinians would not withdraw their bid to sue Israel at the International Criminal Court over alleged war crimes.

“Meet the Press” was one of a number of leading shows that headlined the apparent crisis in US-Israel relations. On CNN’s “GPS,” peace negotiator and former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk placed the blame for the decline in relations on Netanyahu. Describing the address to Congress as “poking the president in the eye,” Indyk said that “over the years, Prime Minister Netanyahu has alienated just about every world leader.”

Indyk continued that irritation has boiled into anger over Netanyahu’s repeated commitments to make peace, and then a perceived unwillingness to deliver. The negotiator, who spearheaded the recent failed US effort to achieve a comprehensive agreement, also acknowledged that the Palestinians “couldn’t get to yes,” and “failed to take advantage” of American efforts to “meet their minimum requirements” of an agreement with Israel.

Netanyahu found a significant defender Sunday morning in Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who belittled Obama’s response to the prime minister’s reelection as a “temper tantrum.”

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” McCain said that the president should “get over” Netanyahu’s reelection. “Get over your temper tantrum, Mr. President,” he said. “If every politician were held to everything they say in a political campaign, obviously that would be a topic of long discussion.”

The Republican, who is seen as a defense hawk, accused the president of focusing on his “bitterness” over Netanyahu’s reelection instead of pressing regional concerns surrounding the rise of the Islamic State and Iran’s support of Shiite insurgencies across the Middle East.

“The president has his priorities so screwed, it’s unbelievable,” McCain claimed.

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