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White House press briefing regarding Israel



James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:07 P.M. EDT – Thursday, March 19

Q         Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be backing away from his comments during his campaign about not allowing a Palestinian state while he’s in charge.  He says now that he would allow that if the circumstances change.  And yesterday, officials here and at the State Department were saying that you took Netanyahu on his word during the campaign, that there would be policy ramifications for what he said.  Based on what he said today, do you now think that those comments were just a campaign pledge that he always intended to backtrack on?  Do you take him at his word today that he would allow for a Palestinian state?

  • MR. EARNEST:  Well, I did have an opportunity to read quickly a transcript of the interview that he did with NBC today. What is apparent is that in the context of the campaign and while he was the sitting Prime Minister of Israel, he walked back from commitments that Israel had previously made to a two-state solution.

So it is, as we mentioned yesterday, cause for the United States to evaluate what our path is forward, given the Prime Minister’s comments.  And so we’ll have to sort of see what sort of policy and priorities the Prime Minister chooses, but we certainly are in a position to evaluate our approach to these issues, given that the Prime Minister essentially backed away from commitments that Israel had previously made to this effort.

  • MR. EARNEST:  Well, the motivation of the Prime Minister and the comments that he made -- I think it was even just earlier this week -- is something that you’ll have to take up with him.  What is clear is the United States has been clear about our policy for some time.  And it also merits pointing out that we pursue this policy not just because it’s convenient -- in fact, it’s not convenient, it’s rather difficult, as has been well-chronicled by all of you in this room -- but we have been in pursuit of this goal because we believe that it is clearly in the best interests of our closest ally in the region. 

We believe that it is in the clear interest of Israel to establish a Jewish and democratic state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with a sovereign Palestinian state.  That is a way for us to defuse tensions in the region.  It’s not going to defuse all of them, but it certainly would substantially reduce tensions in the region.  And it would, of course, serve the national security interests of the United States.  But it’s the best way for us to provide and protect the Israel people. 

  • Again, it doesn’t remove all threats but it certainly is the way for us to resolve what is a prominent point of contention in this region of the world.  And the comments from Prime Minister Netanyahu to walk away from that commitment just this week has prompted the United States to evaluate our position on these matters going forward.
  • MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, I would start by saying that this commitment to a two-state solution has been the bedrock of a lot of U.S. policy towards this region of the world in terms of making decisions.  At the United Nations and in other multilateral fora, the United States has repeatedly intervened in some of those debates at the U.N. and other places by saying the best way for us to solve this problem is to get the two parties to sit down at the negotiating table, resolve their differences so that this two-state solution can be realized So that principle is one that we have applied in a variety of settings to serve as the basis for decisions that have benefitted Israel and that have protected Israel from isolation in the international community. 

But now the Prime Minister of Israel says earlier this week, days before an election, that this is a principle that he no longer subscribes to and that his nation no longer subscribes to. That means the United States needs to rethink our approach, that steps -- that this principle has been the foundation of a number of policy decisions that have been made here, and now that that foundation has been eroded, it means that our policy decisions need to be reconsidered.  And that's what we will do.

  • MR. EARNEST:  That is one example in which this policy decision has served as the basis for a substantial number of policy decisions.  I’m not suggesting that any policy decisions have been made at this point.  I don't want to leave you with that impression. 

In fact, what I have tried to say is that it, understandably, has prompted us to reevaluate the strategy that we will put in place to make those decisions.  And that will be something that we will do moving forward.

  • Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution.  That means that we need to reevaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do moving forward.
  • But when it comes to these other matters and evaluating our own approach to trying to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, that is something that we're going to have reevaluate in light of the Prime Minister’s comments that seem to walk away from some commitments that had been long held in Israel.
  • And it has, in the mind of the President and other senior members of his team, created a need for the United States to reevaluate our approach, again, because the statements from Prime Minister Netanyahu didn't just walk away from a policy position that this President believes is in the best interests of all involved, he actually is backing away from commitments to a policy position that has been supported by the President’s Republican predecessor and supported, as recently as three months ago, by every single member -- Democratic and Republican -- of the United States House of Representatives.

           And that cynical Election Day tactic was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens and their right to participate in their democracy

           And these kinds of cynical, divisive Election Day tactics stand in direct conflict to those values.  And that does have -- again, that does erode at the values that are critical to the bond between our two countries.

  • So that has -- because of what he has articulated and because of his pretty clear indication that he is prepared to withdraw from very serious commitments that Israel had previously made to a two-state solution, that does and has prompted us to reevaluate our approach to this matter.

And obviously the United States will be closely watching additional comments from the Prime Minister and members of his party, and certainly closely watching the actions that they take.

  • And because of his comments days before the election, it does raise questions about his commitment to that solution.  And that solution is the foundation of a substantial number of U.S. policy decisions as it relates to the conflict between the Israeli and the Palestinian people.  So the fact that his commitment to this issue has been, understandably, called into question, it raises questions about our approach, at least in the minds of policymakers inside the administration.  And that is why we are going to evaluate our approach to this matter moving forward.
  • But what I have been focused on is just making sure that I try to help you understand what the thinking is behind the policies that we have in place and why we believe that that thinking now needs to be reevaluated in light of the Prime Minister’s comments.  I’m not suggesting it’s somehow an unfair question to ask.  I’m just saying that what I’m prepared to discuss here are the policy consequences of the Prime Minister’s comments.
  • MR. EARNEST:  That's right.  And the reason is that Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the context of the election, made some pretty clear comments indicating a withdrawal from commitments that Israel had made to that two-state solution process

So it does prompt the administration and policymakers here to reevaluate our thinking about our approach to these issues, because the commitment to that two-state solution has been in a lot of ways sort of a guiding principle as we have made decisions about actions at the U.N. and other places.  And now that our ally in those negotiations has indicated that they are prepared to withdraw from those commitments, or at least a weakness in those commitments, that I think it's only common sense that the United States would begin to reevaluate our approach.

  • MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would direct you to my colleagues in the U.S. Ambassador’s office at the United Nations who can sort of give you a sense of what sort of resolutions are currently being considered by the Security Council and what our position on them might be. 

AS I’ve mentioned before, for years the United States has predicated our decision-making at the United Nations at least in part on the commitment of the United States and both the Israelis and Palestinians to pursuing a two-state solution.  And in light of the recent comments from the Prime Minster that indicates a lack of commitment to that principle, it means that the United States is in a position to reevaluate our thinking about this and a wide range of other issues that do have some consequences for actions that we take at the U.N. and other places. 

But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that any sort of decisions have been made in that regard.  But certainly some new thinking needs to go into how we’re going to approach these issues. 

  • MR. EARNEST:  Well, it is clear that he indicated a lack of commitment to this policy.  But I want to be clear that this is not just a policy that has been supported by President Obama. It’s a policy that was supported by President Bush; it's a policy that I know that President Clinton supported at the end of his tenure in the White House; and it's a policy that was supported just three months ago by every single member of the House of Representatives, Democrat and Republican. 

So this is not a situation where the Prime Minster is creating some daylight between himself and President ObamaIt's creating some daylight between Democratic and Republican Presidents in the United States, and every single member of the House of Representatives. 

  • MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that it is certainly a pretty cynical tactic and there’s no doubt that it's divisive and it is a pretty transparent attempt to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens and their right to participate in the election.  And I’ve made pretty clear our views on that topic, and I wouldn’t rule out others in the administration making their views on this topic pretty clear as well.
  • MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I sense is that there has never been a stronger commitment to the kind of security cooperation between our two countries that is essential to the security of the Israeli people.  That cooperation will continue.

But what we have seen is a weakening commitment from the Prime Minister of Israel to the pursuit of a two-state solution. And I think it's only a matter of common sense that the United States, which for a long time has used the pursuit of a two-state solution as the foundation of our decision-making with regard to policy in this region of the world, that that’s something that needs to be evaluated now.  And that’s what we will do moving forward.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that any specific policy decisions have been made, but it does mean that some new thinking because of the Prime Minister’s comments -- that some new thinking does need to go into those policy positions.

  • MR. EARNEST:  Well, on previous occasions, when the United States in the context of the United Nations Security Council has stood up and raised objections along the lines of resolutions like this, we’ve done so by saying -- and I’ve even had the occasion to say this myself -- that we believe that the dispute is best resolved between the Israeli and Palestinian people by the two sides sitting down and brokering a two-state solution.

After the comments of the Israeli Prime Minister, it’s pretty clear that Israel is no longer committed to that outcome, to that pursuit.  So it’s difficult for us to base that decision on a policy that our closest ally in these talks doesn’t support. So it doesn’t mean that our position has changed, but I think it is pretty clear that that position needs to be evaluated in the context of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent comments.