President Obama said that he takes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “at his word” that he cannot support a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel, dismissing the idea that Netanyahu has softened his stance since winning reelection Tuesday.
Just days before Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu told voters he opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has served as the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for two decades. On Thursday the prime minister walked back those comments, telling American broadcasters he would still be open to the creation of a Palestinian state but that “circumstances have to change” before that would be possible.
But in an interview with the Huffington Post released Saturday, Obama made it clear the United States was still reassessing its relationship with its longtime ally based on Netanyahu’s preelection vow.
“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, adding that he made his position clear during a congratulatory phone call to Netanyahu on Thursday. “And I indicated to him that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.”
Senior Obama administration officials have made no secret of the fact that relations between the two governments have been strained for months. Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to address a joint meeting of Congress earlier this month — which the White House did not learn of until Boehner had already extended the offer — worsened the situation. The Israeli prime minister used the address to decry any possible international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, which ranks as one of the president’s top foreign policy priorities.
In the interview, Obama pointedly criticized Netanyahu’s Election Day comment that Arab Israeli voters were flocking to polling stations “in droves.”
“We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions,” Obama said, suggesting that unequal treatment of Israeli citizens had broad implications for its political system. “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 president said the two countries would continue to work together to promote their shared security and military interests, though he would not comment on whether the United States would block Palestinians’ ongoing effort to achieve statehood through the United Nations, a maneuver the United States has resisted in the past.
And he emphasized that the United States still sees a two-state solution as the only way to alter a status quo he called “unsustainable.”
“And that while taking into complete account Israel’s security, we can’t just in perpetuity maintain the status quo, expand settlements,” Obama said. “That’s not a recipe for stability in the region.”