WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's chief of staff rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempts to distance himself from his comments rejecting Palestinian statehood, telling an Israel advocacy group Monday that the U.S. can't just overlook what Netanyahu said on the eve of his re-election.
In a speech to J Street, an Israel advocacy group that is sharply critical of Netanyahu, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough also warned Israel against annexing the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to establish their future state. He said Netanyahu's prediction that a Palestinian state wouldn't come about on his watch was "so very troubling" and called into question Netanyahu's broader commitment to the two-state solution the U.S. and Israel have officially supported for years.
"We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made," McDonough said.
McDonough's critique of the Israeli leader came as both Israelis and Palestinians are closely watching to see how U.S. policy will change in practical terms after Netanyahu's success in the elections. Obama has said the U.S. must reevaluate its approach to pursuing Mideast peace because of Netanyahu's comments, and has entertained speculation the U.S. will be less willing to come to Israel's defense in the United Nations. The U.S. has voted against U.N. resolutions supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, insisting the matter should be negotiated directly with Israel.
On Monday, Netanyahu apologized to Israel's Arab citizens for another set of remarks that offended members of the community and drew additional U.S. criticism. Netanyahu said he never intended to offend the country's Arab-Israeli minority, but it wasn't immediately clear whether that apology would placate those in Israel and elsewhere who took offense.
"We just don't know what to believe at this point," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. She said people were rightfully confused about which to believe: pre-election Netanyahu or post-election Netanyahu. "Who knows? We can't read his mind."
Obama's decision to dispatch his chief of staff to speak to J Street, just days after the election, was perceived as another sign that Obama intends to take a tougher tack toward Netanyahu despite his insistence that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is still strong. Although the group considers itself pro-Israel, it often advocates against the Israeli government's positions toward Palestinians.
McDonough received a standing ovation when he called out Israel's government for ongoing construction of settlements in the West Bank. He said Israel cannot control another people forever, warning that such a move would be illegal and would contribute to Israel's "total isolation" from the international community.
"An occupation that has lasted more than 50 years must end," McDonough said.
Such tough talk about a U.S. ally drew condemnation from Obama critics like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a potential 2016 presidential contender, who called it "a new low." Graham took to the Senate floor to accuse McDonough of using "language that has been reserved for terrorist organizations up until now" — even though U.S. leaders of both parties, including former President George W. Bush, have used the word "occupation" to describe Israel's presence in the West Bank.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Donna Cassata in Washington and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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