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Netanyahu win forces US re-think on peace strategy

Thursday, March 19, 2015 - 06:50

[WASHINGTON] The US vowed on Wednesday to continue to push for a Palestinian state, but admitted a hardline campaign stand by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forced a re-evaluation of its strategy.

Mr Netanyahu's election victory was met coolly by the White House, which left Secretary of State John Kerry the job of phoning the Israeli leader to congratulate him - taking a break from talks on an controversial Iran nuclear deal to do so.

US President Barack Obama will call "in the coming days," the White House said.

"It was a brief phone call," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki added, refusing to characterise it as a "warm" conversation amid frosty relations between Mr Netanyahu and the Obama administration.

US officials stressed Washington would not be swayed from its official policy that any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should result in two states living side-by-side.

In the final days of his campaign, Mr Netanyahu managed to deepen the discord with the Obama administration by pledging there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, and promising to build thousands more settlements in east Jerusalem.

"It continues to be the view of the president that a two-state solution is the best way to address" tensions with the Palestinians, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he also castigated Mr Netanyahu's Likud party for sharp rhetoric "that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens" after the prime minister urged supporters to the polls warning "Arab voters are coming out in droves."

Ms Psaki added that "only a two-state solution that results in a secure Israel alongside a sovereign and independent Palestine can bring lasting peace and stability to both peoples."

"A two-state solution is the only way for the next Israeli government to secure Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," she insisted, highlighting the demographic trend which points to a growing Arab population.

But she acknowledged that, given Mr Netanyahu's campaign pledges, the administration "will be evaluating our approach with regard to how best to achieve a two-state solution."

NEW CRISES LOOM

Although Ms Psaki refused "to prejudge at this point what that means," speculation is swirling about whether the US may, for example, lift the diplomatic cover it has long given Israel at the UN Security Council, amid unilateral Palestinian moves to seek statehood.

Relations between Israel and its traditionally staunch US ally are at an all-time low, and Netanyahu has a notoriously frosty relationship with Obama.

The Israeli leader's dramatic appearance earlier this month before the US Congress to denounce the emerging nuclear deal with Iran only served to widened the chasm.

Indeed, Mr Obama's Republican rivals were the first American politicians to publicly congratulate Netanyahu.

"Congratulations to Prime Minister Netanyahu on his re-election. He's a true leader who will continue to keep Israel strong and secure," said Jeb Bush, a probable Republican frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race.

Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz also applauded a Netanyahu victory.

"His electoral success is all the more impressive given the powerful forces that tried to undermine him, including, sadly, the full weight of the Obama political team," Cruz wrote.

A new Netanyahu government is unlikely to end the discord with its closest ally however, observers say, although there will be attempts to at least ease the political tensions.

"Netanyahu's comments don't help his credibility, as he seems to be contradicting his own policy from last year when he was negotiating a two-state solution," Natan Sachs, a fellow in Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, told AFP.

But he argued that to Mr Netanyahu the statements were "not as clear cut as they appeared to be from abroad, and I think he's going to try to walk them back somewhat, though that will not be an easy task to do."

BRINK OF COLLAPSE

A new crisis in relations may be only days away. The deadline for a framework deal with Iran is March 31, and the very next day on April 1 the Palestinians will formally join the International Criminal Court.

The Palestinian Authority is planning on its first day to seek action against alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza and settlement activity.

Israel has already cut off millions of dollars of taxes due to the Palestinians in retaliation for joining the ICC, exacerbating a financial crisis for the cash-strapped body now teetering on the brink of collapse.

The Palestinians are increasingly finding it hard to pay their bills, including to security forces, crucial to ongoing cooperation with Israeli forces.

"Without this cooperation we may be looking at the possibility of widespread violence in the West Bank, something that should trouble all of us," said Mr Sachs.

AFP