From The Wall Street Journal
TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed himself for the second time in a week on support for a Palestinian state and said he would back it under the right conditions, a turnaround that the U.S. and Palestinians dismissed as unconvincing.
On Monday, the day before parliamentary elections
, the Israeli leader said he was in danger of losing and made a hard shift to the right—abruptly reversing his 2009 declaration of support for a two-state solution to the decades old conflict with the Palestinians. His victory on election day, which defied pre-election polls, was widely attributed to the late shift in strategy.
The U.S. responded Wednesday by upending decades of American policy when it left open the possibility that it might stop using its veto to shield Israel in the United Nations.
U.S. officials said Thursday that Mr. Netanyahu’s sharp departure on Monday
from his long-held public position on the two-state plan made it difficult for President Barack Obama
’s administration to accept his clarification on Thursday.
“If he had consistently stated that he remained in favor of a two-state solution, we’d be having a different conversation,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
In American television interviews on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu claimed that what he said Monday wasn’t a retraction of his commitment in 2009, maintaining that the conditions to set up such a state are just not achievable today.
Dani Dayan, a prominent leader of West Bank settlers, called Mr. Netanyahu’s recent statements “disorienting and zigzagging.” He said he was among those who switched his allegiance from nationalist party Jewish Home to Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud during the final part of the race.
But Mr. Dayan said he understood that Mr. Netanyahu did what was necessary in a tight race to ensure he got votes and prevailed over the left, even if he made promises he was bound to break. In the end, Mr. Dayan said he doesn’t believe Mr. Netanyahu would ever agree to two states in the current climate.
“Still I don’t like to see him reverse on two states,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu said in the Thursday interviews that he believed a Palestinian state could exist if it were demilitarized and recognized Israel as a Jewish state. But he said he couldn’t support such a state now because of the possibility that extremist group Islamic State or militant movements backed by Iran would gain a foothold there.
“I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change,” he told MSNBC in an interview. He said he didn’t want a “one-state solution” in which Israel would retain control of Palestinian territories.
The White House said nothing in Mr. Netanyahu’s latest comments changes its decision to rethink the U.S. approach on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Despite the strain in relations, President Barack Obama called Mr. Netanyahu Thursday to congratulate him on his party’s victory. Mr. Obama stressed that the U.S. supports a two-state solution as part of a peace agreement, the White House said. The two also discussed nuclear talks with Iran, another point of contention.
A White House official said Mr. Obama made the same points in the private call that the administration has been making publicly, including the need for the U.S. to re-evaluate its options following Mr. Netanyahu’s “new positions and comments regarding the two-state solution.”
The White House has said it now sees no chance for restarting peace talks while Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu remain in office.
The two leaders also discussed what the White House has called “divisive” comments by Mr. Netanyahu about Israeli Arabs, which officials have said were a particular source of concern to Mr. Obama.
On election day Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu tried to win votes by warning that Arab citizens of Israel were turning out in large numbers at polling stations with the aim of toppling him. He also said United List, the party representing Israeli-Arabs, was extremist. Arab Israelis called his comments racist.
Asked why the administration couldn’t accept his comments Thursday at face value—just as it accepted his comments Monday—Ms. Psaki said the administration couldn’t overlook the shift on Monday.
“We believe he changed his position just a few days ago,” she said. “Certainly the prime minister’s comments from a few days ago brought into question whether he remains committed to that.”
The U.S. has privately questioned Mr. Netanyahu’s commitment to the peace process in the past, saying that Israel’s settlement policies under Mr. Netanyahu and the financial penalties it has pursued against the Palestinians undercut prospects for a peace accord.
Administration officials issued new warnings Thursday that they may no longer choose to shield Israel from pro-Palestinian resolutions at the United Nations. They explained that without an Israeli commitment to talks leading to a two-state solution, there was no point to the protective U.S. efforts, such as using its Security Council veto.
“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,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means we need to re-evaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do moving forward.”
In the waning hours of the campaign on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu was trailing his center-left challenger in the polls when he was asked by an Israeli online news site to confirm that a Palestinian state wouldn’t be set up while he was prime minister. He replied in Hebrew: “Indeed.”
He went on to win a surprisingly decisive victory, aided by strong support from Israeli settlers and nationalists who oppose a Palestinian state.
Mr. Netanyahu reluctantly endorsed a two-state solution to the conflict with Palestinians in 2009, shortly after becoming prime minister. But the stance was unpopular among his conservative base.
The Israeli leader claimed in an interview with Fox News that he didn’t retract any of the things he said six years ago.
“I said we have to change the terms. Because right now, we have to get the Palestinians to go back to the negotiating table, break their pact with Hamas, and accept the idea of a Jewish state,” he added.
Before peace talks were suspended about a year ago, Israel had negotiated with the moderate Palestinian Authority, which administers one of two Palestinian territories, the West Bank. The Islamist Hamas rules the other one, Gaza, and Israel fought a 50-day war with the group in the summer.
Yuval Steinitz, minister of intelligence in Mr. Netanyahu’s current government, said the prime minister’s assertion Thursday that he hadn’t changed his position in the first place was “an honest and important statement.” He added: “There isn’t a change in Israeli policy; there is a change in the Middle East. Israel wants a solution to the conflict, but we and the rest of the world understands there is no partner.”
Amir Tibon, a commentator for Israel’s Walla! news website, said Mr. Netanyahu, who spoke English during both interviews Thursday, was practicing the same type of doublespeak that he and other Israeli leaders have often accused Palestinians of.
“The Palestinians started to lose credibility in the world when it became apparent that their leaders were saying one thing about the peace process in the local media in Arabic and something else in English” to American audiences, he wrote, adding that this “is no longer an exclusive Palestinian leadership behavior.”
In the MSNBC interview, Mr. Netanyahu played down the dispute with the White House, saying there were disagreements but the two countries had common interests.
“And America has no greater ally than Israel and Israel has no greater ally than the United States,” he said.
Yehuda Ben-Meir, a former politician and analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank, said he wasn’t surprised Mr. Netanyahu reversed himself.
“Now [Mr. Netanyahu] realizes he has to run the country and has to have good relations with the U.S.,” he said.
The Palestinians, along with many in Washington and European capitals, have long said that Mr. Netanyahu’s stance in negotiations and his government’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank seemed inconsistent with the two-state principle he endorsed in 2009.
“We all know what he is doing on the ground,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, adding that Mr. Netanyahu’s no-state pledge “showed his true colors” and described “exactly the policy he intends to pursue.”
Mr. Netanyahu has long argued that Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state and two years ago made it a central demand in negotiations. The Palestinian leadership has refused, saying such recognition would disenfranchise Arab citizens within Israel’s borders and undermine their long-standing demand for the return of Palestinians who became refugees when Israel was created in 1948. They say Mr. Netanyahu’s demand was meant to deadlock the negotiations.
Before the interviews, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that he was extremely worried about the election results and believed a two-state solution was no longer possible under Mr. Netanyahu.
“If what Netanyahu said is true, then the whole project of the two-state solution isn’t feasible—it is impossible,” Mr. Abbas said. “We are extremely worried about the result of the Israeli election.”
Mr. Abbas, however, said he would continue to work with any Israeli government.
The Central Elections Committee said Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud won 30 of 120 parliament seats to 24 for his main challenger, the center-left Zionist Union. Five nationalist and religious parties, including the center-right Kulanu party, won a total of 47 seats and are expected to join a Likud-led government.