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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Tensions Rise as Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu Appears to Reject Post-War Palestinian State, Testing U.S.-Israel Relations


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday appeared to reject the idea of creating a Palestinian state, a statement that could contribute to growing tensions between Washington and Jerusalem.

“In any future arrangement … Israel needs security control all territory west of Jordan. This clashes with the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty. What can you do?” he told a news conference in Tel Aviv when asked about reports that he told American officials he opposes the idea of Palestinian sovereignty.

“This conflict is not about the absence of a (Palestinian) state but about the existence of a state, the Jewish state,” Netanyahu also said.

The apparent rejection of a Palestinian state is at direct odds with the stated position of one of Netanyahu’s staunchest allies, US President Joe Biden, who has long advocated for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even as Biden offers support for Israel, behind the scenes he and top officials have grown frustrated that Netanyahu appears to be rejecting advice and pressure on the campaign in Gaza.

American officials said Thursday they would not allow Netanyahu’s apparent rejection of an eventual Palestinian state to stop them from pressing the matter with their Israeli counterparts.

A senior administration official noted after Netanyahu’s comments that the prime minister had reversed himself on hardline positions before – and that his statement Thursday was not necessarily the final word.

“If we took such statements as the final word, there would be no humanitarian assistance going into Gaza and no hostages released,” a senior US administration official said. “As with those and many other issues, we will continue to work toward the right outcome, particularly on issues where we strongly disagree.”

One person familiar with the matter said it wasn’t clear whether Netanyahu had, in fact, relayed his views directly to American officials, as he stated during his news conference. The person said inside the administration, his comments aren’t being viewed as a major departure from what he’s said previously.

A public rift opened between Biden and Netanyahu last month over the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza and differences in opinion about what a future for Palestinians should look like after combat operations end. The US has been signaling that it wants Israel to move to a lower intensity phase of the war that focuses more on Hamas leaders and militants rather than the mass strikes that have led to tens of thousands of Palestinian civilian deaths.

“I want them to be focused on how to save civilian lives. Not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful,” Biden said last month.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Netanyahu in a meeting last week that “every partner that I met on this trip said that they’re ready to support a lasting solution that ends the long-running cycle of violence and ensures Israel’s security.” He said they are willing to help with reconstruction and a move to Palestinian governance in Gaza.

“But they underscored that this can only come through a regional approach that includes a pathway to a Palestinian state,” Blinken said.

“If Israel wants its Arab neighbors to make the tough decisions necessary to help ensures lasting security, Israeli leaders will have to make hard decisions themselves,” he said.

Both Biden and Netanyahu have faced increasing domestic political pressure as the military campaign in Gaza has dragged on. The US president is confronted constantly by pro-Palestinian protesters who demand he call for a ceasefire and up the pressure on the Israelis to end their military campaign that began in the wake of the October 7 terror attack by Hamas.

Meanwhile Netanyahu faces pressure from Israelis over the fact that scores of hostages are still being held from Hamas’ attack and the security failures that allowed it to take place. Failure to deliver on the return of those hostages would intensify political pressure on a decisive leader whose popularity among Israelis has only plunged since October 7.

Amid calls for Netanyahu to resign, the prime minister claimed in the news conference that the Israeli politicians asking for him to step down are essentially asking for the creation of a Palestinian state.

“Those who talk about the day after Netanyahu are actually talking about the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said, adding that an Israeli prime minister needs to be “capable of saying no to our friends,” he added.

When asked about Netanyahu’s remarks, John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday that “nothing has changed” in Biden’s desire for a Palestinian state.

“We’re not going to stop working towards that goal. And this is this is not a new comment by Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he said.

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