White House Chief-of-Staff Denis McDonough.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The White House continued to express its displeasure with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, as US President Barack Obama’s chief-of-staff, Denis McDonough, criticized the premier for saying a more stable region is a precondition to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
McDonough, in an address to J Street’s annual conference in Washington, referred both to Netanyahu’s preelection statement saying a Palestinian state would not come into existence under his watch, and his clarification in media interviews afterward that he had not withdrawn his support for a two-state solution.
Such contradictory comments, McDonough said, “call into question his commitment to a two-state solution, as did his suggestion that the construction of settlements has a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian communities and his claim that conditions in the larger Middle East must be more stable before a Palestinian state can be established.”
He intimated that the instability in the region that is one of Netanyahu’s concerns was dealt with in the “detailed plan to provide for security in the West Bank over the long term” that was prepared during the last round of negotiations by Gen. John Allen.
McDonough won a large ovation from a crowd whose organization has staunchly opposed Netanyahu’s policies when he said, “We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations.”
McDonough said that those who feel that the White House’s reaction over the last few days was because of “personal pique” were far from the truth.
“America’s commitment to a two-state solution is fundamental to US foreign policy,” he said. This, he added, was why Obama said that the US needed to “reevaluate” its approach to the diplomatic process.
“We will look to the next Israeli government to match words with actions and policies that demonstrate a genuine commitment to a two-state solution,” he said. He added that, like every administration since that of president Lyndon Johnson, “We will continue to oppose Israeli settlement activity, since it undermines the prospects for peace.”
McDonough made no mention in his speech of what the Palestinians need to do or say.
Repeating principles that Obama established in 2011, McDonough laid out what Washington feels a peace agreement should look like.
“The borders of Israel and an independent Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” he said. “Each state needs secure and recognized borders, and there must be robust provisions that safeguard Israel’s security. An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state.”
McDonough stressed that “no matter who leads Israel, America’s commitment to the country’s security will never waver.”
He said that the security, military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries is greater than it ever has been, “and that’s not going to change.” He added the US would continue to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge, and “as the president has said so many times, we have Israel’s back.”
On Iran, McDonough repeated the administration’s arguments in favor of the talks going on with Iran, and said the US “will continue to do everything in our power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s position on Israel and his rebuke of Netanyahu have already become a prominent issue in the 2016 campaign for the White House.
Likely presidential contenders Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have issued broad criticism of the president’s tack, and now Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, declaring on Monday his intent to run for the presidency, said that restoring US-Israel relations will be a key part of his campaign vision.
Imagine a president who “stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel,” Cruz said at Liberty University in Virginia, an evangelical Christian school. Cruz said he would run a campaign targeting “people of faith all across America.” He is the first prominent candidate to announce a run, although former Florida governor Jeb Bush is actively and publicly exploring a bid.
Support for Israel is an important issue for the Christian Right and America’s evangelical movement.
Cruz drew applause from the Lynchburg audience after suggesting Obama is ignoring religious elements in the West’s war with Islamic State.
In a related development, CNN reported that a small group of House Democrats was scheduled to meet with Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer on Monday evening to try to repair damage in the relationship.
New York Rep. Steve Israel helped arrange the dinner, which was to take place at the ambassador’s residence.
CNN quoted him as saying the dinner was aimed at “tamping down on the drama” between Democrats and the Israeli government.Michael Wilner in Switzerland and Reuters contributed to this report.