Obama calls on new government to pursue two-state solution

President says he remains hopeful despite both sides’ dubious ‘overall commitment,’ asserts deal must address Gaza

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, May 12, 2015 (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)
US President Barack Obama at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, May 12, 2015 (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

US President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he looks to the incoming Israeli government and the Palestinians to show a “genuine commitment to a two-state solution” and added that an agreement will have to resolve the humanitarian conflict caused by last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip.

In an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Obama spoke of his enduring hope of seeing a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although he admitted that it would be a “very difficult path forward.”

“I will never give up on the hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the United States will never stop working to realize that goal,” Obama said, detailing his expectations from both Israelis and Palestinians amid the establishment of a new government in Jerusalem.

“We look to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to demonstrate — through policies and actions — a genuine commitment to a two-state solution,” he said. “Only then can trust be rebuilt and a cycle of escalation avoided.”

The interview with the pan-Arab paper of record came as the president prepared to meet with Gulf Cooperation Council officials in Washington.

Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been fraught with tension over the impasse in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as over the terms of the emerging nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Netanyahu succeeded in cementing a right-wing coalition with a razor-thin majority last week, almost two months after winning an election. His coalition partners are largely opposed to a two-state solution, and comments he made before the election have cast doubt on his own commitment to an accord that would lead to Palestinian statehood.

In Wednesday’s interview, Obama addressed the setback to the peace process in April 2014, when nine months of US-sponsored talks ended without progress. Three months later, Israel went to war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, amid burgeoning Arab-Jewish hostilities in Jerusalem.

“With the breakdown of talks, simmering tension in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, last summer’s conflict in Gaza, and serious questions about overall commitment to a two-state outcome, it’s no secret that we now have a very difficult path forward,” he said.

“As a result, the United States is taking a hard look at our approach to the conflict,” he said, possibly alluding to the administration’s decision to reevaluate its policy of vetoing United Nations resolutions that would impose a deadline for a negotiated solution.

The war in Gaza, dubbed Operation Protective Edge in Israel, saw over 2,100 Palestinians killed and tens of thousands more left homeless, according to Palestinian and UN tallies. Israel, which lost 66 soldiers and six civilians in the conflict, said the high civilian toll in Gaza was due to fighters there embedding their military infrastructure in residential areas.

“Addressing the lasting impact in Gaza of last summer’s conflict should also be central to any effort,” Obama said. “Ultimately, the parties will need to address not just Gaza’s immediate humanitarian and reconstruction needs, but also core challenges to Gaza’s future within a two-state context, including reinvigorating Gaza’s connection with the West Bank and reestablishing strong commercial links with Israel and the global economy.”

In a response to Obama’s comments, MK Tzachi Hanegbi of Netanyahu’s Likud party said that the Palestinians were to blame for the lack of progress in talks.

“There will never be a Palestinian state if the Palestinians don’t negotiate,” he told Israel Radio, claiming that it was the Palestinians who had ended the US-sponsored talks in 2014. “If they will be prepared for direct talks without preconditions, the negotiations will be renewed.”

Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution was thrown into doubt a day before the election in March, when Netanyahu said that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch should he be reelected, arguing that any areas that came under Palestinian rule could subsequently become a Hamas stronghold. Many commentators interpreted the statement as an appeal to hawkish voters.

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

After the election, the prime minister backtracked, asserting that he still supported “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.” He claimed that he had been misunderstood and had merely discounted the two-state solution for the moment, pending, among other things, a more accommodating Palestinian Authority.

In April, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he was ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions.

After talks ended in 2014, the Palestinians began a series of moves to obtain international recognition of statehood by applying for membership in various global organizations. A bid for a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an end to Israel’s presence in the West Bank by 2017 ultimately did not garner enough votes, although several European parliaments passed motions recognizing Palestine in the ensuing months. Meanwhile, the Palestinians joined the International Criminal Court in a bid to pursue war crimes charges against Israel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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