Just days after announcing that he would never allow a Palestinian state on his watch, newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backtracked on his promises. In an interview Thursday, Netanyahu claimed he was “still committed” to Palestinian statehood, according to Al Jazeera. The move comes after President Obama’s lukewarm response to the Israeli premiere’s re-election intimated an increasingly frosty relationship — but The New York Times reports that the White House remains unimpressed by Netanyahu’s conciliatory comments.
Netanyahu won a surprise re-election Tuesday, after a last-minute barrage of interviews and comments that many criticized as racist. On polling day, the famously bellicose leader urged Israelis to head to the voting booth, because the country’s Arab citizens would be voting against his party in “droves.” In a video clip posted to Facebook, Netanyahu warned, “The rule of the right is in danger. The Arabs are moving in droves to the polling stations. Left-wing organizations are bringing them there in buses.” According to BBC, in the final stages of the election Netanyahu also appealed to voters by guaranteeing he would not allow the formation of a Palestinian state.
Obama waited well past the customary timeframe to call and congratulate Netanyahu on his victory, with the White House roundly criticizing the latter’s “divisive rhetoric.” A Press Secretary re-emphasized Obama’s belief in the two state solution, and intimated that the administration would have to reconsider its approach to the Middle East Peace process in the light of Netanyahu’s abandonment of that option. In a clear rebuke quoted by The Guardian, the White House rep said:
The United States and this administration is deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab Israeli citizens… It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.
Prior to the election, Netanyahu spent time in the U.S., addressing high-ranking officials but not POTUS, before giving a controversial speech to Congress. His rigid, incendiary stance on Iran and seemingly adamant rejection of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question has deteriorated the already fraught Obama-Netanyahu relationship still further.
When Obama eventually called Netanyahu Thursday, he was not particularly congratulatory. “The President reaffirmed the United States’ long-standing commitment to a two-state solution that results in a secure Israel alongside a sovereign and viable Palestine,” the White House said in a statement. The President also emphasized that he would be pressing ahead with a Iranian nuclear negotiations — a deal Netanyahu roundly denounced during his speech to Congress and which is currently being nutted out in Lausanne.
Just days after his re-election, Netanyahu is seemingly trying to appease Israel’s large and disgruntled traditional ally. He told Fox News Friday that his comments on Arab voters had been taken out of context. He also claimed during a Thursday interview with MSNBC that he still supports Palestinian statehood, although the conditions are not currently ripe for it. “I haven't changed my policy,” he said, continuing:
I don't want a one-state solution, I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that circumstances have to change. And every territory that is vacated in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces… You can't impose peace. And in any case, if you want to get peace, you've got to get the Palestinian leadership to abandon their pact with Hamas and engage in genuine negotiations with Israel for an achievable peace.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had previously expressed concern over Netanyahu’s re-election. And White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made clear that Netanyahu’s about-face will not lend him impunity for his previous comments, as the Times reports. Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric indicates a lack of commitment to the two-state solution, Earnest said, which “means that the United States is in a position to re-evaluate our thinking.”
Despite the clear indications of a radical change in U.S.- Israeli ties, Today Online reports that Republican House Speaker John Boehner, a staunch ally of Netanyahu, will visit Israel at the end of March. Boehner himself extended Netanyahu an invitation to speak at Congress, which ramped up tensions in the weeks before the election, and his visit will come at a time when the Obama-Netanyahu relationship is stretched to breaking point.
Meanwhile, a senior Israeli official has said that the nations’ military ties will remain “intensive,” despite the cooling relationship between their two leaders. Amos Gilad, the Israeli defense ministry's strategic affairs director, reportedly told public radio, “Defense relations continue full strength. Everything concerning the security dialogue is deep, broad and intensive… These ties will continue and are continuing."
Images: Getty Images (3); Newsy World / MSNBC (1)