Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem on March 18, 2015. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked Thursday from a clear campaign statement that as long as he was the leader of Israel there would be no independent Palestinian state.
“I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change,” Netanyahu, who won reelection Tuesday, told MSNBC in an interview.
Earlier this week, in the heat of the Israeli campaign, with pre-election polls suggesting that he might lose, Netanyahu made the sensational promise that he would not support the creation of a Palestinian state on his watch, an open reversal of his earlier stance supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The head-spinning pivot did not convince White House officials, who suggested Thursday that Netanyahu’s maneuvers could prompt a shift in U.S. policy toward Israel, particularly in the United Nations, where the United States has been Israel’s strongest advocate and defender. The White House described its commitment to Israeli and Palestinian states existing side by side in peace as a “bedrock” principle of U.S. policy in the region.
In a sign of the Obama administration’s extreme frustration, White House press secretary Josh Earnest denounced Netanyahu’s actions as “cynical, divisive election-day tactics” that are unworthy of the values that the United States and Israel share. “Words matter,” Earnest added.
Netanyahu’s actions had “eroded” that foundation and will mean that the United States “needs to rethink our approach,” he said. “And that’s what we will do.”
Despite the strained relations, President Obama called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory, as well as to express concern about his election-eve rhetoric and to stress U.S. commitment to a “sovereign and viable” Palestinian state.
The call, which also reaffirmed the importance of U.S.-Israel cooperation on matters of intelligence and security, reflected the delicate balancing act facing the White House as it weighs the need to support one of its closest allies while also demonstrating its growing frustration with Netanyahu.
Obama had declined to meet with Netanyahu this month when he was in Washington to deliver a speech to Congress that raised concerns about the administration’s negotiations with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program. The speech represented yet another sore spot in the two leaders’ strained relationship.
One option that the White House is considering is acceding to the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution that outlines the broad parameters of a two-state solution and involves significant sacrifice on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Such a resolution would “set down a marker for both societies and the future,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the Obama administration.
Comparing terms of Israeli prime ministers
The administration has previously opposed such efforts to impose a solution on the conflict from the outside. But the White House could argue that such a measure, which would probably be drafted by European allies, would help shield Israel from more extreme punitive measures, such as sanctions or war crimes charges in the International Criminal Court, which the Palestinian Authority has vowed to pursue after it joins in April.
The move would also be seen widely as an effort on the part of the White House to punish Israel’s prime minister. “The president has to decide if this is worth it,” Goldenberg said. “This is a huge political lift for the White House.” Such a move would probably come this spring or summer to shield Democratic presidential candidates from the political fallout.
The White House said Thursday that no decisions had been made on whether or how the United States should shift its approach to Israel.
After winning a resounding victory Tuesday to a fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu went on U.S. TV news shows — and not Israeli programs — on Thursday to walk back his statements.
Netanyahu, who only days earlier suggested that any evacuation of the occupied territories would be akin to ceding ground to “radical Islam,” was suddenly insisting that he hadn’t changed his policy.
As proof, the prime minister cited a speech he gave at Bar-Ilan University in 2009 in which he famously said he supported a two-state solution, as long as Israel’s security was guaranteed and the newly created Palestinian nation was demilitarized.
Over the past six years, whenever it seemed as if Netanyahu was fighting against a two-state solution, his aides referred reporters to his Bar-Ilan speech.
Netanyahu returned to that speech in an interview with Fox News on Thursday. “I didn’t retract any of the things I said in my speech six years ago,” he said.
Instead, he blamed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his reluctance to continue talks. “He’s made a pact with the Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, that calls for our destruction,” the prime minister said, referring to the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
He added that “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 the [Islamic State].”
Although the Islamic State has no presence in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, it does operate in neighboring Syria. It’s “a dozen miles away from us,” Netanyahu said. “It’s thousands of miles away from you.”
Palestinian leaders scoffed at what they called Netanyahu’s disingenuous attempt to recast his remarks while blaming others.
Abbas said that Netanyahu’s words “are proof, if correct, that there is no seriousness in the Israeli government about a political solution,” according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Saeb Erekat, who spent nine months last year as the top Palestinian negotiator in talks led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, said, “What Netanyahu said wasn’t electioneering. It was him.”
“This new Israeli government is determined to bury a two-state solution,” Erekat said, adding that there is “a big difference between tough negotiator and non-negotiator” and that all Netanyahu and his team have brought to talks is “make-believe, illusions, plays.”