President Obama’s chief of staff said Monday that the administration remains deeply troubled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent comments against Palestinian statehood and asserted that the White House will continue to push a two-state Mideast peace process agenda regardless of who holds power in Jerusalem.
“The Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state,” Denis McDonough, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, said during a speech before the annual conference of J-Street, the top left-leaning Jewish lobby group in Washington.
The group has long stood for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Mr. McDonough — the keynote speaker at this year’s conference — drew loud applause and cheers when he asserted that Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of Palestinian-dominated West Bank territory “must end.”
While he also stressed that, “no matter who leads Israel, America’s commitment to Israel’s security will never waiver,” Mr. McDonough’s comments represented latest expression of discontent by the Obama administration toward Mr. Netanyahu, who pulled out a victory last week in Israel’s hotly contested national election.
White House officials last week said they were re-evaluating the administration’s overall strategy toward the Mideast peace process in the wake of Mr. Netanyahu’s 11th-hour campaign promise to block the creation of a Palestinian state — an announcement that created headlines around the world because it represented a stark reversal of the Israeli prime minister’s own past position on the issue.
Several analysts said Mr. Netanyahu had made the statement as a way to drum up last minute votes from right-wing supporters in the face of a possible election upset by Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog — a man known for fervently supporting the idea of an independent Palestinian state.
In the days after the election, Mr. Netanyahu sought to dial back his rhetoric, telling MSNBC last Thursday that he hadn’t actually changed his policy on the two-state solution. “What has changed is the reality,” the prime minister said.
“I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change,” he said. “I was talking about what is achievable and what is not achievable. To make it achievable, then you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace.”
Mr. McDonough dismissed Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks during his J-Street speech Monday.
“After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position, but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution,” the White House chief of staff said.
Mr. McDonough also claimed that Mr. Netanyahu had suggested that the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in has “a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian communities.”
Mr. McDonough said that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has “been the goal of Republican and Democratic presidents and it remains our goal today.”
“It is the only way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.