On Tuesday, President Barack Obama dismissed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to walk back his rejection of a Palestinian state and warned that the Jewish leader’s comments could empower extremists and lead to violence in the region.
Appearing at a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Obama stressed that he would continue to provide military and security assistance to Israel. But he argued that Netanyahu’s election-eve comments ruling out a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict require his administration to re-evaluate its approach toward advocating for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years,” Obama said. “Because up until this point, the premise has been both under Republican and Democratic administrations that as difficult as it was, as challenging as it was, the possibility of two states living side by side in peace and security could marginalize more extreme elements, bring together folks at the center and with some common sense and we could resolve what has been a vexing issue and one that is ultimately a threat to Israel as well. And that possibility seems very dim.”
Last Monday, as polls showed him trailing the more liberal Zionist Union coalition party, Netanyahu told a news website, “I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands, is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel.” The prime minister has tried to soften the remarks in a series of interviews with American journalists by claiming that he could imagine a Palestinian state at some point in the future.
But Obama pointed out that Netanyahu’s efforts to clarify his comments set forward “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 any time soon.”
“I think the corrective of Prime Minister 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 even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time,” he said. “That may trigger then reactions by the Palestinians that in turn elicit counter reactions by the Israelis and that could end up leading to a downward spiral of relations that would be dangerous for everybody, and bad for everybody.”
Palestinians and Arab leaders have always appeared skeptical of Netanyahu’s public embrace of the two state solution in 2009, pointing to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories and his demands of the Palestinians. In fact, the Netanyahu government established 20 new settlements through the approval of illegal outposts on on the Palestinian side of the Geneva Initiative outline, which provides a basic delineation for Israel and a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu also sought to introduce “a public declaration of the Jewishness of Israel as a condition the Palestinians had to meet” in the most recent peace negotiations (which ended in April 2014) and championed a “Nationality Law” enshrining Israel as a state of Jews in which “there are national rights only for the Jewish people. The move was fiercely opposed by Israel’s Arab and Christian communities as well as members of Netanyahu’s own government.
During his press conference, Obama chided journalists for framing the growing rift between his administration and Netanyahu as a personal spat, noting that he has a “very business-like” relationship with the Israeli leader. “We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israeli security, Palestinian aspirations, regional stability…Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach, so this can’t be reduced to a matter of let’s hold hands and sing ‘kumbaya’.”
Since Netanyahu’s re-election, administration officials have hinted that they could start working through multilateral organizations like the United Nations to push both parties toward peace. Obama is reportedly considering introducing or backing a U.N. resolution that establishes the parameters and definitions for a two-state solution, a move that will be mightily opposed by the Israeli government and Republicans in Congress.
Asked to comment on those specifics, Obama said, “we’re going to do that evaluation.”