Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has jeopardized future negotiations for peace with the Palestinians by abandoning the two state solution and demonizing Arab voters, President Barack Obama said on Friday in an interview with the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein.
In his first public comments about the Israeli election, in which Netanyahu’s Likud party almost certainly won enough seats to secure Netanyahu a fourth-term as prime minister, Obama criticized Netanyahu for fomenting fear of Arab-Israelis. On election day, as he appeared to be losing at the polls, Netanyahu told supporters, “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”
“We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions,” Obama told the Huffington Post. “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 name of democracy in the country.”
The comments outraged many in America and around the world and personally offended Obama, a White House aide told the Los Angeles Times this week. The president reportedly confronted Netanyahu over the remarks during a phone call congratulating the Israeli leader on his re-election and administration officials openly criticized Netanyahu in the press.
During his interview with the Huffington Post, Obama also hinted that Netanyahu’s disavowal of the two-state solution just days before the election could change America’s approach toward achieving lasting peace in the region. “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,” Netanyahu told a news website on Monday as polls showed him trailing the more liberal Zionist Union coalition party. Since securing re-election, Netanyahu has tried to walk back 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 administration officials have dismissed the effort as transparently political.
“We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, 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,” Obama said.
Democrats, Republicans, and a long string of Israeli leaders have coalesced around a two-state solution, with an independent and antonymous Palestine state living alongside Israel. Netanyahu formally endorsed the concept in 2009, but has amassed a long record of openly opposing or undermining Palestinian statehood.
With the loss of Netanyahu as a negotiating partner to any bilateral talks with the Palestinians, the administration has hinted that it could start working through multilateral organizations like the United Nations or the International Criminal Court (ICC). It 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.
Though most Republicans have remained mostly silent about Netanyahu’s policy reversals, on Saturday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stressed that lawmakers from both parties would oppose efforts to internationalize the conflict. In a press release, Graham announced that he spoke to Netanyahu and “indicated to the Prime Minister there would be bipartisan resistance to Palestinian efforts to join the International Criminal Court.” Palestinian leaders have sought to join the ICC in an effort to pressure Israel. They are also asking the court to “exercise jurisdiction over any crimes committed in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza from 13 June 2014,” a period that covers the latest armed conflict.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest indicated earlier this week that the administration has not yet made any final decisions about its Israeli policy and Obama did not tell the Huffington Post “whether the United States would continue to block Palestinian efforts to secure statehood through the United Nations.” Any change would only widen the rift between the Israeli government and Democrats, following Netanyahu’s tacit endorsement of Mitt Romney during the 2012 election and his decision to accept an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to criticize the administration’s ongoing negotiations with Iran from the well of the House chamber. Administration officials also suspect the Netanyahu government of leaking sensitive details about those negotiations to the press and have since limited their exchange of sensitive information with the Israelis.
On Saturday, Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition to Netanyahu in Knesset and head of the Zionist Union coalition, also called on the prime minister to make amends to the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. “Netanyahu must do everything in his power to make [Israeli Arabs] fully equal,” Herzog said. Netanyahu has defended his statements, telling Fox News on Thursday that that was trying to point out that “foreign money was coming in to selectively try and bring out supporters of a list that includes Islamists and other factions that oppose the State of Israel.”