Benjamin Netanyahu receives congratulatory call from Barack Obama
Call comes as Israeli leader backtracks on comments renouncing two-state solution
U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory two days ago, relieving pressure from critics for not embracing the Israeli leader's success sooner.
The call came as the White House continued to push back against Netanyahu's pre-election rejection of a two-state solution to Palestinian-Israeli peace.
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The White House said in a statement that Obama stressed the United States' close security co-operation with Israel, but also emphasized the U.S. commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.
On another sensitive subject, Obama addressed negotiations with Iran over Tehran's nuclear program and said he was focused on a deal that would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the White House said. Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran.
Since Netanyahu's election triumph this week, the White House has said the U.S. will have to reconsider its approach to Mideast peace given the prime minister's hard veer to the right in the campaign. On Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest specifically mentioned that in the past the U.S. has repeatedly cited the goal of creating a Palestinian state when it has intervened on behalf of Israel in the United Nations.
In an interview Thursday with MSNBC, Netanyahu appeared to walk back from his earlier remarks, saying he could support a demilitarized Palestinian state if conditions in the region change.
'Haven't changed my policy'
"I haven't changed my policy," he said in a full interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports. "I never retracted my speech."
"I don't want a one-state solution, I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that circumstances have to change," Netanyahu said. "And every territory that is vacated in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces."
"You can't impose peace. And in any case, if you want to get peace, you've got to get the Palestinian leadership to abandon their pact with Hamas and engage in genuine negotiations with Israel for an achievable peace," Netanyahu said. "You have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace. We are. It's time that we saw the pressure on the Palestinians to show that they are committed too," he said.
'Head in the sand'
A day before the election Netanyahu told the Israeli nrg news website that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch because of the current climate in the region."Whoever ignores that is burying his head in the sand. The left is doing that, burying its head in the sand time after time," he said in the video interview. When asked if that means a Palestinian state will not be established if he is elected, Netanyahu replied, "Indeed."
Earnest said Netanyahu's comment, however, "raises questions about his commitment to a two-state solution."
On Tuesday, just a few hours before voting stations across the country shut, Netanyahu had also warned that Arab citizens were voting "in droves" and endangering years of rule by his Likud Party. The comments drew accusations of racism in Israel, especially from its Arab minority, and a White House rebuke.
Earnest called it a "cynical election-day tactic that was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab Israeli vote."
In the MSNBC interview Netanyahu said he was "very proud of the fact that Israel is the one country in a very broad radius that — in which Arabs have free and fair elections. That's sacrosanct. That will never change," he said.
He repeated allegations he made during the campaign that external elements had funded the Joint List, a recently established alliance of four small, mostly Arab parties. Arab citizens make up 20 percent of Israel's population.
"I wasn't trying to suppress a vote; I was trying to get something to counter a foreign-funded effort to get votes that are intended to topple my party. And I was calling on our voters to come out," he said.
- An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Netanyahu backtracked on comments renouncing a one-state solution. He, in fact, had originally renounced a two-state solution.Mar 19, 2015 10:16 PM ET