In his first public statements on the outcome of Tuesday’s Israeli elections, President Obama reprimanded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the latter’s belligerent attitude to Palestinian state-formation will make it “hard to find a path” through the Middle East peace process, and reiterating that the “status quo is unsustainable.” The comments, made during an interview with The Huffington Post published Saturday, further demonstrate that Netanyahu’s frantic backpedaling on his divisive campaign rhetoric has failed to mend the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Leading up to his election-day victory on March 17, Netanyahu firmly stated, contrary to previously stipulated policy, that he would not allow a Palestinian state to form on his watch. The comment undermined certain foundational principles of the U.S. relationship with Israel, and was quickly rescinded just days after the election. But the damage has clearly been done.
“We take him at his word when he said that [a Palestinian state] wouldn't happen during his prime ministership,” Obama told HuffPo's Sam Stein, “and so that's why we've got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don't see a chaotic situation in the region." Referring to the content of his Thursday phone call to the Israeli PM, congratulating him belatedly on his win, the President said:
I did indicate to him that we continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only way for the long-term security of Israel, if it wants to stay both a Jewish state and democratic. And I indicated to him that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.
In the lead up to the election, Netanyahu also provoked allegations of racism, after warning Israelis that they should vote because Arab citizens would be heading to the polls “in droves.” Netanyahu later told Fox that his words had been taken out of context, and attempted to clarify. “I warned of foreign money coming in to selectively try and bring out supporters of a list that includes Islamists and other factions that oppose the State of Israel,” he said. But his explanation has clearly not exculpated him in Obama’s eyes. On that topic, POTUS had this to say:
We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel's traditions. That although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly. And I think that that is what's best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don't believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.
Tensions with Netanyahu have been on the increase since the Israeli PM gave an inflammatory speech to Congress denouncing the current U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran. But despite Netanyahu’s victory at the polling booths, Obama made clear that the Israeli vote of confidence in Netanyahu would have little effect on the talks in Lausanne. “I don't think it will have a significant impact,” he told Stein.
Nevertheless, the President made clear that despite policy differences, U.S.-Israeli security co-operation would remain unchanged — echoing the comments of a senior Israeli official made earlier this week. The U.S. provides Israel with $3 billion in military aid each year, according to The Guardian. The President suggested that this would continue.
We're going to make sure, regardless of disagreements we have on policy, that our military and intelligence cooperation to keep the Israeli people safe continues and that cooperation also helps the American people stay safe.
Meanwhile, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has called for a “healing process” in Israel to counteract the destructive effects of Netanyahu’s election campaign. Post-election, Rivlin is tasked with selecting the person with the best hopes of compiling a functional coalition government — though The Guardian suggests that Bibi’s solid win has made Rivlin's choice moot. “It is very likely that President Rivlin will be inviting Mr. Netanyahu to form a government," Imtiaz Tyab, Al Jazeera's correspondent in West Jerusalem, has said.
But as he began his consultations with the various Israeli parties Sunday, Rivlin warned that unity was necessary and any new government must work for “all the citizens of Israel; Jews and Arabs.” Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party took 30 of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats on March 17, while its closest challenger — the left-centered Zionist Union—took only 24.
Despite his resounding victory, Netanyahu is not without vocal Israeli critics. J Street — a leftist Israeli advocacy group that staunchly opposes Netanyahu — is convening for its annual conference in Washington D.C. “There is a real fury at Netanyahu and his policies that is not fueled by a deep concern for the future of Israel, its character or its values,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, told Haaretz. He said:
There are a large number of people in the center of the community that were really turned off not just by the political shenanigans that surrounded this election, but who also share a deep disdain for the type of politics that is represented by Netanyahu and the right. And now they see that traditional and communal organizations are unable to criticize that – this will hurt those institutions and benefit J Street. I think these people will find a home in J Street.
In what could be seen as a gesture of support for oppositional Israeli voices, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough is expected to address the 3,000-strong conference Monday. Rivlin, too, is tellingly due to greet the delegates by video address.
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