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Obama calls Netanyahu to congratulate him on Israeli election

President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House in 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday to congratulate him on winning his country's election Tuesday.

The president phoned Netanyahu to congratulate "his party’s success in winning a plurality of Knesset seats," according to a White House statement.

Netanyahu's Likud Party, which had been trailing in the polls, won a decisive victory this week after he tacked sharply to the right. The results were clear by Wednesday morning Washington time: Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Netanyahu on Wednesday, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama would not be calling immediately because Netanyahu still had to assemble a governing coalition.

Tensions between the president and Netanyahu have been running high for weeks, ever since the prime minister accepted an invitation from congressional Republicans to address a joint session of Congress last month. Netanyahu used the forum to criticize ongoing talks between Iran, the United States and several European nations over Iran's nuclear program.

The two leaders “agreed to continue consultations on a range of regional issues, including the difficult path forward to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the White House statement said.

While Netanyahu pledged just before the election to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, the statement noted, “The President reaffirmed the United States’ long-standing commitment to a two-state solution that results in a secure Israel alongside a sovereign and viable Palestine.” Netanyahu had appeared to be backtracking on that vow Thursday.

“Words matter,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest earlier Thursday. “And that’s certainly true in this instance.” In a sign of the White House’s extreme frustration, Earnest denounced Netanyahu’s comments before the election about opposing a possible Palestinian state as “cynical, divisive election day tactics” that are unworthy of the values that the United States and Israel share.

Earnest suggested that Netanyahu’s maneuvers could prompt a shift in U.S. policy towards Israel, particularly in the United Nations, where the U.S. has been Israel’s strongest advocate and defender. The White House described its commitment to Israeli and Palestinian states existing side by side in peace as a “bedrock” principle of U.S. policy in the regionNetanyahu’s actions had “eroded” that foundation and will mean that the U.S. “needs to rethink our approach,” said Earnest. “And that’s what we will do.”

In his call with Netanyahu, Obama made it clear that he would press ahead with the Iran nuclear talks despite Israeli opposition, reiterating “that the United States is focused on reaching a comprehensive deal with Iran that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and verifiably assures the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a point Thursday of questioning the Obama administration's reticent response to Likud's victory. Asked by a reporter what he thought of the White House's "lukewarm" reaction, Boehner replied, "Lukewarm?  That's the understatement of the day."

Greg Jaffe contributed to this report

This post has been updated.