Netanyahu backs away from rejection of two-state solution

In NBC interview, PM insists he still supports Palestinian state in principle, says that he is not a racist; tells Fox ‘you can’t force the people of Israel to accept terms that would endanger them’

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being interviewed by MSNBC on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (photo credit: Screen capture, MSNBC)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being interviewed by MSNBC on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (photo credit: Screen capture, MSNBC)

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday walked back statements made during campaigning rejecting the possibility of a two-state solution, telling NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”

Netanyahu’s first post-elections interview was delivered to the US news TV station, indicating a focus on calming tensions with Washington, which have risen steeply following a sharp right turn by Netanyahu in the final days of his campaign.

“I haven’t changed my policy,” Netanyahu insisted. “I never retracted my speech at Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes a Jewish state.”

“What has changed is the reality,” he continued. “[Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] the Palestinian leader refuses to recognize the Jewish state and has made a pact with Hamas that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and every territory that is vacated today in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces. We want that to change so that we can realize a vision of real, sustained peace. I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change.”

On Monday, Netanyahu had told Israeli news outlet Maariv that he would not allow a Palestinian state on his watch, as he attempted to rally voters from the right to cast ballots for his Likud party ahead of Tuesday’s election.

The statement was seen as an about face of Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, during which he said he was committed to a two-state solution.

Netanyahu handily won the election Tuesday against center-left rival Isaac Herzog, in part, analysts said, because of his last-ditch hardline appeal.

The comment brought an international backlash, with sources saying the White House may pull back support for Israel at the United Nations, compounding the prime minister’s already fractured relationship with US President Barack Obama.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration launched a scathing critique of Netanyahu’s campaign statements, even indicating that if Netanyahu rejected a negotiated path toward a two-state solution, the US would support Palestinian initiatives to unilaterally declare independence through the United Nations.

In a second US TV interview on Thursday, with Fox News, Netanyahu said he hoped that wasn’t the case.

“I hope that’s not true, and I think that President Obama has said time and time again, as I’ve said, that the only path to a peace agreement is an agreement, a negotiated agreement.

“You can’t impose it,” he went on. “You can’t force the people of Israel — who’ve just elected me by a wide margin, to bring them peace and security, to secure the State of Israel — to accept terms that would endanger the very survival of the State of Israel. I don’t think that’s the direction of American policy. I hope it’s not.”

The prime minister downplayed the level of discord with Washington, noting to NBC that “Secretary Kerry called me yesterday, and I am sure I’ll be speaking to President Obama soon.”

“We’ll work together – we have to – because we have no other alternatives. We’re allies,” Netanyahu insisted. “We have to consult each other, not have fiats or unilateral impositions but negotiated peace with our neighbors and support between allies, and America has no greater ally than Israel and Israel has no greater ally than the United States.”

He also stressed that he “didn’t mean any disrespect” to Obama in addressing Congress earlier this month to warn against an impending deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

Later in the interview, the premier demonstrated unusual flexibility on the issue, saying that allowing Iran to retain a “small number” of its centrifuges as part of a deal “wasn’t something that Israel and its Arab neighbors would love, but it is something that they could live with.”

Israel’s traditional position has been that Iran must be stripped of an capacity to create nuclear weapons, including the dismantlement of all facilities used to enrich either uranium or plutonium.

The prime minister rejected allegations that the decision to bypass the White House and make a speech at the invitation of the Republican-controlled Congress was a partisan move.

The prime minister also dismissed allegations that he had resorted to race-baiting following comments about high Arab voter turnout during the election, saying that he was not a racist.

Netanyahu defended his record in reaching out to the Arab community. “I will continue to do that — in my government — to have real integration of Arab citizens of Israel into the Israeli economy, Israeli high-tech, and Israeli society. My commitment is real and it will stay real.”

Netanyahu doubled down, however, on his allegations that there was a well-funded international campaign against him.

He emphasized that his warning was not about Arabs-Israelis voting in general, but rather warning that there was a large turnout in support of “a specific party — an amalgamation of Islamists and other anti-Israel groups.”

According to Netanyahu, he also issued the warning to a group of Arab supporters of Likud, in order to encourage them to go to the polls in support of the prime minister’s party.

“I wasn’t trying to suppress the vote. I was attempting to get something to counter a foreign-funded effort to get votes that are intended to topple my party,” he said.

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