Israeli PM denies abandoning two-state solution

Israeli PM denies abandoning two-state solution
PM Netanyahu and son, Yair, visit the Wailing Wall on March 18, 2015.

WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied on Thursday abandoning his commitment to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, backing away from pre-election comments that deepened a rift with Israel's chief ally the United States.

But the White House, unmoved by Netanyahu's post-election effort to backtrack, delivered a fresh rebuke against the Israeli leader and signalled that Washington may reconsider its decades-old policy of shielding Israel from international pressure at the United Nations.

The White House warned there would be "consequences" for Israel as the Obama administration "re-evaluates" its Middle East diplomatic strategy and monitors the formation of Netanyahu's new ruling coalition.

"He walked back from commitments that Israel had previously made to a two-state solution," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. "It is ... cause for the United States to evaluate what our path is forward."

President Barack Obama called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his re-election victory on Tuesday and used the opportunity to reaffirm "the United States' longstanding commitment to a two-state solution" to the Middle East conflict, the White House said.

Obama told the Israeli leader he values the close security partnership between their countries and the two agreed to keep consulting on the "difficult path forward to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the White House said.

"I haven't changed my policy. I never retracted my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state," Netanyahu told MSNBC in his first US television interview since winning the bitterly contested Israeli ballot.

"What has changed is the reality," Netanyahu said, citing the Palestinian Authority's refusal to recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the Hamas militant group's continued control of the Gaza Strip.

The harsh US response signalled that US-Israeli relations, already at their lowest point since Obama took office, could deteriorate even further as an end-of-March deadline looms in US-led nuclear diplomacy with Iran that Netanyahu bitterly opposes.

Among the most serious risks for Israel would be a shift in Washington's posture at the United Nations. The United States has long stood in the way of Palestinian efforts to get a UN resolution recognising its statehood, including threatening to use its veto, and has protected Israel from efforts to isolate it internationally.

QUESTIONS ABOUT US SHIELD AT UN

While assuring the United States' commitment to military and intelligence cooperation with Israel, Earnest left the door open to the possibility that Washington might be less diligent about shielding Israel diplomatically in the future.

"Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations had been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome," he said. "Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution."

Netanyahu touched off the diplomatic storm with his comments on the eve of Tuesday's election that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, widely seen as intended to mobilize his right-wing base when his electoral hopes were flagging.

The goal of Palestinian statehood is a cornerstone of both US diplomacy going back decades and Obama's Middle East policy. But Obama's previous peace efforts have failed and prospects for renewed diplomacy were already low.

US officials scolded Netanyahu not only for abandoning his commitment to a Palestinian state but also for his election-day accusation that left-wingers were working to get Israel's minority Arab voters out "in droves" to sway the election.

"It's a pretty cynical tactic and there's no doubt it's divisive," Earnest said.

Netanyahu denied he had been trying to suppress the votes of Arab citizens or that his comments were racist.

He also backed away from his pre-election statement rejecting Palestinian statehood, but made clear that he believed for now political and security conditions were not amenable.

"I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change," he told MSNBC.

Netanyahu's frosty relations with Obama worsened when he accepted a Republican invitation to speak to Congress two weeks before the Israeli election, a move assailed by Democratic leaders as an insult to the presidency and a breach of protocol.

In another sign that the administration is looking to turn up the heat on Netanyahu, the White House is sending Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, to address the liberal pro-Israel US-based group J Street on Monday. The group, a proponent of two states side by side, opposed Netanyahu in the election campaign.

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