Obama administration rejects Netanyahu backtrack on two-states

Washington remains unimpressed by prime minister’s claim that he still supports peace process, calls comments about Arab vote ‘cynical tactic’

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

White House press secretary Josh Earnest, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON — Officials in Washington quickly made it clear that they were not buying into  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu’s about face on support for a two-state solution Thursday, repeating statements that they would re-evaluate their approach to the peace process.

Netanyahu seemingly attempted to mend ties with Washington by walking back a pre-election promise not to support a Palestinian state, but spokespeople in the White House and State Department did not express any sentiments welcoming Netanyahu’s assurances that he continued to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu was the prime minister three days ago as well,” responded State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki to his Thursday assurances. “We believe he changed his position three days ago.”

On Monday, the day before the elections, Netanyahu was asked by an interviewer from Israel’s NRG website about policy on the Palestinians and 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 re-elected, he answered: “Indeed.”

The comment was an about face from Netanyahu’s landmark 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, in which he declared support for a two-state solution.

The administration refrained from responding to the comments before the election, but roundly attacked them the next morning, following Netanyahu’s decisive victory.

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)

The tone in Washington remained unchanged Thursday, even after Netanyahu declared in an interview to MSNBC that “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.”

Both the White House and State Department acknowledged reading the transcript of Netanyahu’s interview.

US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki (screen capture: YouTube)
US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki (screen capture: YouTube)

Asked about Netanyahu’s apparent recant, Psaki insisted that “our preference is for a two-state solution negotiated between the parties. His comments three days ago brought into question his commitment to that.”

Although she did not explain why the administration seemed to extend greater credibility to Netanyahu’s pre-election comments than to his Thursday interview, Psaki suggested that “if he [Netanyahu] had consistently stated that he remained in favor of a two state solution, we’d be having a different conversation.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated the same sentiments as Foggy Bottom, telling reporters that “after the comments, it’s pretty clear that Israel is no longer committed to [a two-state solution].”

Earnest confirmed that President Barack Obama would call Netanyahu in the coming days.

The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry – and not the president – called Netanyahu following his victory is seen as an indication both in Washington and Jerusalem of the US administration’s disappointment over Netanyahu’s victory.

Earnest also laid into Netanyahu for a comment made during the election in which the prime minister pleaded with supporters to vote because Arab Israeli were “coming out in droves” to polling stations.

“That cynical election day tactic was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens and their right to participate in their democracy,” Earnest said.

Netanyahu has claimed that he was protesting a so-called foreign-funded campaign to bus opposition voters to ballot boxes.

Psaki said that the US intends to hold a number of conversations with Netanyahu in the coming weeks.

On a policy level, Washington continued to signal that it was considering toning down its diplomatic support for Israel, both through bilateral relations and in the United Nations. With the stakes as high as the loss of a US veto at the Security Council, Netanyahu’s Thursday interview did nothing to change the warnings signaled by the administration.

“We are currently reevaluating our approach but it doesn’t mean that we’ve made a decision regarding changing our position at the UN,” said Psaki, responding to reports that the US was considering lifting its veto on UN Security Council resolutions toward Palestinian statehood. She added that the US will not cease attempts to block resolutions that are seen as “unfair or biased,” but even qualified that comment by implying that the bar for such a definition could be lowered significantly.

Earnest too noted that US decisions at the UN had been previously “based on a commitment to two-states,” but that now that Israel’s commitment to such an approach was missing, the US would “reevaluate our approach.”

Netanyahu addressed that issue in a second TV interview, with Fox News, saying he hoped the US would not support Palestinian initiatives to unilaterally declare independence through the United Nations. “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.”

Asked about Palestinian threats to cut security cooperation with Israel in light of the election results, Psaki did not strongly reject the idea, merely noting that the US believes that ongoing security cooperation yields benefits for the Palestinians as well as for Israel.

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