By David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to walk back controversial remarks he made in the closing days of his re-election campaign, turning to two U.S. television networks to rebut charges of racism and insist he still backs a negotiated peace that would include a Palestinian state.
“I haven’t changed my policy” on a Palestinian state, he said in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that aired Thursday. “I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
In the final days of the campaign, as he sought to spur his nationalist, conservative backers to the polls, Netanyahu had said he would oppose creating an independent Palestinian state. His remarks were widely interpreted as negating the pledge he had made in 2009 to back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As he sought to defuse the diplomatic furor his campaign remarks caused, Netanyahu insisted that he had meant only that a Palestinian state wasn’t possible in current conditions.
“Circumstances have to change,” he said, pointing to the efforts the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has made to negotiate a unity pact with the more radical Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza region.
Undoing the tie with Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist group, is a necessary first step for any negotiations, he said.
“You have to get the international community to press on the Palestinians to go back to — go back on their unity pact with the terrorist Hamas and come back to the table,” Netanyahu said in a separate interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News, according to excerpts released by Fox. The interview was scheduled to air Thursday evening.
Whether Netanyahu’s latest statements will satisfy Obama administration officials remains to be seen. On Wednesday, administration officials had said that if Netanyahu was abandoning the two-state goal, the U.S. might drop its longstanding policy of blocking United Nations resolutions that Israel opposes.
The creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel has been the cornerstone of U.S. policy on the Mideast in both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
In advance of the interviews, Obama administration officials had expressed skepticism about Netanyahu’s changing positions.
“You can’t say all this … and then just say, ‘I was just kidding,'” a senior administration official said Wednesday.
“There’s a several-year record where Bibi shows he’s not willing to move the ball down the field on the Palestinian state,” the official said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “That’s not just one comment. We take it at face value.”
In the interviews, Netanyahu also tried to take back a remark about Arab voters that had prompted an angry reaction from administration officials and many prominent American Jews.
In a video released on election day, he had warned supporters that Arab voters were heading to the polls “in droves.” U.S. officials called that comment a negation of Israel’s democratic values.
Netanyahu denied any discriminatory intent.
“I’m very proud to be the prime minister of all of Israel’s citizens, Arabs and Jews alike,” Netanyahu told NBC.
“I wasn’t trying to suppress a vote; I was trying to get out my vote,” he said in both interviews.
Netanyahu also sought to play down the strains between his government and the Obama administration.
“There’s an unbreakable bond” between Israel and the U.S., Netanyahu said. “We’ll work together, we have to.”
Netanyahu also adopted a softer tone in his criticism of the nuclear deal the U.S. and five other world powers have been negotiating with Iran. He continued to say, as he did in his speech to Congress earlier this month, that he thought a better deal could be negotiated, but did not repeat some of the tough rhetoric he used then.
It’s possible to negotiate “an agreement we wouldn’t like but we could live with,” he said in the Fox interview.
A key concern, he said, would be the duration of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities and what tests Iran would have to meet to have those restrictions lifted. That issue remains under negotiation, officials involved in the talks have said.
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, on March 17, 2015. (Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)