In Netanyahu call, Obama says US reassessing peace approach

AP News
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Posted: Mar 19, 2015 8:17 PM
In Netanyahu call, Obama says US reassessing peace approach

WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid new tensions between two allies, President Barack Obama on Thursday told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. is reassessing its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace in light of Netanyahu's pre-election comments rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In the telephone call, Obama extended congratulations to Netanyahu for his election victory two days ago. But a White House official said Obama also raised Netanyahu's critical comments about Israeli Arabs ahead of the election, which the White House has denounced as a "cynical" effort to mobilize voters.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private call, because it touched on various delicate subjects between the two leaders.

In a separate statement, the White House said Obama stressed the United States' close security cooperation with Israel, but also emphasized the U.S. commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

On another divisive topic, the statement said 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. Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran.

In an interview Thursday with MSNBC, Netanyahu appeared to walk back from his earlier remarks about a rejecting a two-state solution, saying he could support a demilitarized Palestinian state if conditions in the region change.

But White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Netanyahu's earlier comment "raises questions about his commitment to a two-state solution."

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. But he sidestepped questions about whether any reassessment of U.S. policy would mean putting distance between the U.S. and Israel at the U.N.

Earnest also criticized anti-Arab rhetoric used by Netanyahu's party in the lead-up to the election as a "cynical election day tactic (that) was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab Israeli votes."

Asked whether the subject came up in the phone call, the White House official said, "In his phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the president made the same points in private that the administration has been making in public."

Tensions between the White House and Netanyahu escalated as the Israeli elections drew nearer. The White House was especially annoyed when Netanyahu accepted an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress earlier this month without consulting the administration.

Earlier Thursday, Boehner mocked the Obama administration's chilly reaction to the Israeli prime minister's election victory.

Asked by a reporter about the administration lukewarm response to Netanyahu's win, Boehner, R-Ohio, said, "Lukewarm?" and laughed heartily.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough will give a speech Monday to a major advocacy group that opposes Netanyahu.

McDonough's address to the J Street group indicates that the administration will seek to strengthen voices that challenge Netanyahu.

J Street is an Israel advocacy group that often criticizes the Israeli government — and especially Netanyahu. The group called Netanyahu's election victory a "deep disappointment" and accused him of winning by shredding U.S. bipartisanship on Israel and "preying on fear and racism at home."

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Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Alan Fram contributed to this report.