Netanyahu tries to backtrack from controversial campaign remarks

Workers in Israel remove an election campaign billboard showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With the election over, Netanyahu went on U.S. television Thursday to try to walk back several controversial remarks.
Workers in Israel remove an election campaign billboard showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With the election over, Netanyahu went on U.S. television Thursday to try to walk back several controversial remarks.
(Ariel Schalit / Associated Press)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began Thursday to try to gloss over the harsh campaign rhetoric that helped him win reelection but marred his relations with President Obama, who made it clear he isn’t ready to move on.

Backing off his most controversial remarks, Netanyahu said in two U.S. television interviews that he still supports a peace agreement that sets up a Palestinian state and insisted he meant no ill will by warning supporters that Arab voters were heading to the polls “in droves,” a comment that many took as racist.

But his words elicited only silence in the Oval Office, where Obama icily refused to answer a question from a reporter about whether he had found time to call Netanyahu, the world leader he has said he talks to more than any other, in the two days since his conservative Likud Party’s election victory. Eventually, the White House acknowledged the two spoke by phone Thursday afternoon.


Obama’s aides made it clear that the president is not forgetting Netanyahu’s assertion that he would oppose creating an independent Palestinian state and considers it a new statement of positions that may require recalculation by the United States.

“We take him at his word,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of Netanyahu.

When the two leaders spoke, Obama reminded Netanyahu of the U.S. commitment to the two-state solution, according to a statement. The White House also announced that Obama was sending his top aide to speak next week to a leading Jewish advocacy group that backs the two-state solution.

Earnest also decried Netanyahu’s remarks about Arab voters. “These kinds of cynical, divisive election day tactics stand in direct conflict to … the values that are critical to the bond between our two countries,” he said.

Joining him in condemnation was the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of rabbis belonging to the Conservative movement, one of the three major branches of organized Judaism in the United States. The group said Netanyahu’s comment was “unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the state of Israel was founded.”

The history of U.S.-Israeli relations is the story of conflicts overlooked in the interest of preserving a vital alliance. Obama and Netanyahu for years have downplayed their lack of personal affinity and focused instead on the importance of the country-to-country relationship.

Now, though, the personal and the policy are colliding and could alter the Obama administration’s approach to some of its most pressing concerns, including the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers and the fight against Islamic State extremists.

The Israeli campaign season exacerbated the tension between Obama and Netanyahu significantly, a breakdown worsened by the Israeli prime minister’s speech to Congress this month that warned against a nuclear deal with Iran, whose leaders vow the destruction of Israel.

Then this week, as he sought to spur his nationalist, conservative backers to go to the polls, Netanyahu said he would oppose creating an independent Palestinian state. His remarks were widely interpreted as negating the pledge he made in 2009 to back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu turned to U.S. television journalists Thursday to argue he meant only that a Palestinian state wasn’t possible under current conditions.

“I haven’t changed my policy” on a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said in an interview with NBC. “I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”

As for the remark about Arab voters, Netanyahu denied any discriminatory intent.

“I’m very proud to be the prime minister of all of Israel’s citizens, Arabs and Jews alike,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to suppress a vote; I was trying to get out my vote.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, said he was pessimistic about the chances of negotiating a two-state solution with Netanyahu. The Palestinians plan to resume efforts to persuade the United Nations Security Council to pass new resolutions aimed at securing their statehood, Abbas said.

In a White House that has emphasized voting rights both at home and abroad, Netanyahu’s remark stung days later. The West Wing staff had barely finished hanging the pictures of President Obama’s recent trip to celebrate the 1965 voting rights marches in Selma, Ala., when Netanyahu issued his ominous warning about Palestinian voters.

To the Obama administration, it seemed a troubling message from a nation that sees itself as a beacon of pluralism in the Middle East. Earnest labeled the voter remark a “pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab Israeli citizens and their right to participate in their democracy.”

Apparently trying to preserve Israel’s relationship with the U.S., which sends $3.1 billion in aid there each year, Netanyahu emphasized the alliance as an “unbreakable bond” and softened his criticism of the nuclear talks. He continued to say, as he did in his speech to Congress, that he thought a better deal could be negotiated, but did not repeat some of the tough language he used then.

It’s possible to negotiate “an agreement we wouldn’t like but we could live with,” he said in an interview with Fox News.

Obama’s pique may be part sentiment and part strategy. His public silence pointed to an effort to avoid elevating the personal rift over the U.S. relationship with its closest Mideast ally, and perhaps to influence the Israeli leader’s moves.

Netanyahu at any given moment will do what politics dictate, said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“U.S. negotiations with Prime Minister Netanyahu have often been contentious, but they’ve also yielded something,” he said. “He’s a much more cautious politician than he suggests by his statements.”

As Netanyahu scrambled to realign the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, he noted the inevitability that it would remain intact.

“We’ll work together,” he said on NBC. “We have to.”

Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli in Washington and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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