Two days after his comeback victory in Israel’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to walk back his incendiary pre-election statements. He told American news outlets that he hadn’t really retracted his endorsement of Palestinian statehood. And he pleaded that he hadn’t meant to offend Arab Israelis when he warned that they were coming out to vote “in droves.”
President Obama and his spokesmen could have accepted these conciliatory gestures. Instead, they refused to let Netanyahu retreat. They insisted that his election-eve declaration against statehood was his real position, and that the United States would rethink its approach to peace talks, since Israel no longer seemed serious about negotiating.
The United States expects the next Israeli government to end nearly 50 years of occupation and clear the way for a Palestinian state, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has told Jewish Americans.
To cheers from the liberal Jewish group J. Street, McDonough vowed to safeguard Israel and criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s abandonment of a Palestinian state in the run-up to his re-election on March 17.
Netanyahu is working to form Israel’s next coalition government.
One of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers, McDonough said a separate state is the best guarantee of Israel’s long-term security.
“An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state,” McDonough said.
Palestinians seek a state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, lands Israel usurped in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
“In the end, we know what a peace agreement should look like. The borders of Israel and an independent Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” McDonough said.
Since his re-election Netanyahu has tried to row back on his election eve remarks dismissing a two-state solution, long a cornerstone of U.S. peacemaking efforts. But McDonough said the United States remained troubled.
“We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made,” he said.
Separately, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters the administration was unsure where the Israeli leader stood. Netanyahu has said “diametrically opposing things, so which is his actual policy?” Harf told reporters. “I think we just don’t know what to believe at this point.”
McDonough also defended the deal world powers are trying to reach to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, saying it was “realistic and achievable.”
Obama in a press conference said of the prime minister:
Afterwards, he pointed out that he didn’t say “never,” but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created. But, of course, the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet anytime soon. So even if you accepted, I think, the corrective of Netanyahu in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state.
With this assessment, the president went beyond McDonough. He didn’t see Netanyahu’s post-election spin as contradicting what the prime minister had said before the election. Indeed, Obama agreed with Netanyahu that the pre-election and post-election remarks were reconcilable. But what united those remarks wasn’t the possibility of a Palestinian state. It was Netanyahu’s insistence on pre-state conditions that were unachievable by the Palestinians and beyond any plausible time horizon. As long as Israel held to those conditions, the United States would have to look for other ways to advance statehood.
Obama didn’t specify what Israel had to do to regain the administration’s trust. Neither did McDonough. When pressed for answers, the administration remains maddeningly vague about what it expects Israel to do. But the signals seem to be getting through. On Wednesday, Israel froze construction of new units at Har Homa. Hours later, without reference to the construction or any particular Israeli response, Earnest told reporters: “It’s clear what our position is. And I think it’s also clear that that message has been received.”
Many people with an interest in the U.S.-Israeli relationship have watched the administration’s post-election statements with alarm. Its criticism of Netanyahu has seemed unyielding and unappeasable. I don’t think Obama and his aides have worked out exactly what they want. But they do seem to be settling on a critique that focuses on Israel’s settlement policy and its unrealistic insistence on regional stability as a prerequisite to statehood. If Netanyahu wants to regain credibility in Washington and the rest of the world, that’s what he’ll have to surrender.