Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fresh from a victory in Israel’s elections, tried Thursday to walk back a campaign statement that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch, saying he still endorsed a two-state solution to the conflict.
But the White House responded with tough comments that indicated the Obama administration doubts Netanyahu’s sincerity. In unusually harsh language delivered after Netanyahu’s statements were aired, Press Secretary Josh Earnest multiple times chastised the Israeli prime minister, who he said had “backed away from commitments.” He also questioned whether the United States and Israel still share democratic values.
Earnest singled out Netanyahu’s call to his supporters to rush to the polls because Arab Israelis were voting in record numbers. “That cynical Election Day tactic was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab Israeli citizens and their right to participate in their democracy,” he said.
“One of the things that binds our countries together so closely is our shared values and a commitment to a set of values that are deeply integrated into our country, our government and our citizens,” Earnest said. “And these kinds of cynical, divisive Election Day tactics stand in direct conflict to those values.”
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It was the second day in a row in which Earnest used intentionally undiplomatic wording to describe Netanyahu’s actions during the Israeli election campaign, and he declined to chalk them up to simple campaigning. He noted that Netanyahu made the comments as the “sitting prime minister.”
“What the motivation of the prime minister was . . . is something that you’ll have to take up with him,” he said.
Whether his angry tone marked a permanent turn in the U.S.’s long support of Israel at the United Nations and other international forums remained to be seen. Earnest said the U.S. now had no choice but to rethink its position before the United Nations, where it had repeatedly used its veto, he said, to protect Israel from “international isolation.”
Earnest’s remarks came before President Barack Obama called Netanyahu on Thursday to congratulate him. The White House statement didn’t mention the tone of that conversation, though it was written to avoid the word “victory” and to note that Netanyahu’s party, while it had won the most votes of Israel’s several factions, still represented only a minority in the parliament.
“President Obama spoke today by telephone with Prime Minister Netanyahu to congratulate the prime minister on his party’s success in winning a plurality of Knesset seats,” the statement said.
In contrast to Earnest’s remarks, the White House statement was unemotional.
“The president emphasized the importance the United States places on our close military, intelligence and security cooperation with Israel, which reflects the deep and abiding partnership between both countries,” the statement said. “The president and the prime minister agreed to continue consultations on a range of regional issues, including the difficult path forward to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The White House said Obama “reaffirmed the United States’ long-standing commitment to a two-state solution that results in a secure Israel alongside a sovereign and viable Palestine.” It did not say how Netanyahu responded.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that if Netanyahu had indeed repudiated the two-solution, the Palestinians would continue their efforts to seek international recognition at the U.N. and pursue war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
“If these things are true, it means that the Israeli government has no serious intentions to reach a political solution that will create two states,” Abbas said at a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
“Therefore we will not retreat from our position demanding the implementation of international law, and so it is our right to go anywhere in the world to realize our rights according to international law.”
In an interview broadcast by MSNBC, Netanyahu said he still supported a two-state solution to his nation’s conflict with the Palestinians. He said he’d “never retracted” a speech that he made in 2009 at Bar-Ilan University in which he expressed readiness to accept a Palestinian state provided it was demilitarized and the Palestinians recognized Israel as the Jewish state.
“I haven’t changed my policy,” Netanyahu said in the interview, the first he’s granted since the election.
“What has changed is the reality. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian leader, refuses to recognize the Jewish state, he’s 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.”
“I don’t want a one-state solution, I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change,” he added. “I was talking about what is achievable and what is not achievable. To make it achievable, then you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace.”
As part of a last-minute campaign blitz to attract right-wing voters, Netanyahu had told the Israeli news site NRG that “whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic attacks against Israel.”
Asked whether that meant no Palestinian state as long as he was prime minister, he replied, “Indeed.”
Netanyahu’s main election competitor on the right, the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, opposes a Palestinian state. Election results suggested that significant numbers of voters had deserted the faction for Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, part of a late surge in support that gave him a decisive victory.
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said Netanyahu’s reversal was to be expected.
“When it comes to the international community he understands that he has to position himself as accepting the two-state solution” even though “in his heart of hearts he’s really dedicated to swallowing most of the West Bank,” Alpher said.
“It’s all tactics with him,” he added. “He’s totally consistent in his endless zigzagging to please the party that has to be pleased at the moment.”
Netanyahu also used the MSNBC interview to try to soften the impact of his election appeal to supporters in which he asserted that Israeli Arabs were going to the polls “in droves” in buses provided by leftist groups.
Israeli critics called the comment racist, and Earnest said the “rhetoric” was “deeply concerning” and divisive.
Netanyahu said he was “very proud to be prime minister of all of Israel’s citizens, Arabs and Jews alike.”
He said his concern was a “massive foreign-funded effort” by nongovernmental groups to drum up support for an Israeli Arab party that he called “an amalgamation of Islamist and other anti-Israel groups.”
The party emerged from the elections as the third largest faction in Israel’s parliament.
“I wasn’t trying to suppress a vote,” Netanyahu said. “I was trying to get something to counter a foreign-funded effort to get votes that are intended to topple my party, and I was calling on our voters to come out.”
In his response, Earnest said he’d read a transcript of Netanyahu’s interview. His subsequent statements showed he was unconvinced.
“Israel rightly prides itself on a vibrant democracy,” he said. “But one of the core values of a vibrant democracy is ensuring that everybody has an opportunity to participate. And those comments and those tactics certainly do not reflect a commitment to those values.”