Washington: President Barack Obama on Thursday telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory earlier this week, a call that had been delayed after new tensions surfaced between Washington and Tel Aviv over recent comments the premier had made.
The White House said in a statement that Obama had "reaffirmed the United States' long-standing commitment to a two-state solution that results in a secure Israel alongside a sovereign and viable Palestine". Relations between Netanyahu and Obama have been testy and problematic, given that the Israeli leader rejects the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme being headed by Washington and the White House is making those talks a priority.
Barack Obama. File pic
In addition, now a new controversy has arisen after Netanyahu on Monday appeared to change his commitment to a two-state solution to bring about Middle East peace between Israel and the Palestinians, something that the US has supported for two decades.
"The president and prime minister agreed to continue consultations on a range on regional issues, including the difficult path forward to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the statement said. Regarding Iran, Obama once again told the Israeli leader that the US is seeking to reach an overall agreement to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons and, at the same time, to be able to verify its exclusively peaceful nature.
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said earlier on Thursday that the US government feels that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu changed his stance when he said on the eve of last Tuesday's elections in the Middle Eastern country that he would not support the creation of a Palestinian state.
Psaki referred to an interview Netanyahu gave to NBC in which he said that he had not changed his opinion despite on Monday having said that he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state as long as he was premier, remarks that observers have said were a last-minute attempt to garner rightwing votes, a move that appears to have worked, given that he won the election in an upset.
"The prime minister, as we all know, in his comments earlier this week indicated that he is no longer committed to pursuing (the two-state) approach (for an Israeli and a Palestinian state to achieve Mideast peace). Based on the prime minister's comments, the United States is in a position going forward where we will be evaluating our approach with regard to how best to achieve a two-state solution," said Psaki.
In the interview made public Thursday by NBC, Netanyahu tried to explain his remarks, saying that "I never retracted my speech in Bar Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized the Jewish state. I want a sustainable peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change."
Psaki said that the US position is that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must include two separate states that coexist as neighbours. She said that "Certainly, the prime minister's comments from a few days ago called into question his commitment to (the two-state solution).... We believe he changed his position. We can't forget about those comments".
Earlier on Thursday, in the NBC interview, Netanyahu had denied he had changed his opinion on creating a Palestinian state, but he added that conditions on the ground in the region make that less of a possibility. "I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change," the premier had said.
Meanwhile, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said at his daily press conference that "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. "Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means we need to reevaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do moving forward."
Also in the NBC interview, Netanyahu had said: "We have so many things that unite (Israel and the United States). We have a situation in the Middle East that is very dangerous and presents a common challenge to us. We work together. We have to ... America has no greater ally than Israel, and Israel has no greater ally than the United States."
Early this month, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress after accepting an invitation from the Republican opposition, something that the Obama administration considers to be a violation of protocol, given that it was not notified of the speech, as is customary.