After staying mum on Israeli issues in the run-up to the election, the White House on Wednesday broke its silence — answering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory with fresh criticism and making clear that a new rift has opened between U.S. and Israeli leaders, this time over Palestinian statehood.
In its first public response to Netanyahu’s election triumph, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama still believes in a two-state solution. This was after Netanyahu, shortly before the vote, reversed his stance and stated he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state.
Earnest acknowledged Wednesday that the U.S. would have to “re-evaluate” its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in light of those comments. But he stressed that Obama believes a two-state solution is best. And State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki clarified that the administration “absolutely” will continue to push for this.
Further, Earnest chided Netanyahu’s Likud Party on Wednesday, saying the White House was “deeply concerned” about divisive language emanating from Likud. He said the party had sought to marginalize Israel’s minority Arabs, an apparent reference to social media posts the Likud distributed that warned Israelis about the danger of high turnout by Arab voters.
“These are views the administration intends to convey directly to the Israelis,” Earnest said.
The comments suggest there is likely to be no thaw in the chilly relationship between Netanyahu’s administration and the White House. Netanyahu’s Likud won a major victory on Tuesday, leaving him poised to secure a third consecutive term as prime minister.
While tensions have flared for years between the two leaders, the last several weeks have seen their relationship further fray.
In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu took a hardline stance on the two issues on which his government and the Obama administration are most intertwined — Iran nuclear talks and the seemingly far-off prospects for an agreement with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu pronounced earlier this week he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state — something which not only Obama supports but is a key demand of the Palestinians for any peace agreement.
Netanyahu also infuriated the White House early this month when he delivered a speech to the U.S. Congress criticizing an emerging nuclear deal with Iran.
Secretary of State John Kerry and other international negotiators are scrambling to reach the framework for an Iran deal by the end of the month. Netanyahu, though, has warned that the details he’s seen provide for Iran to eventually pursue a nuclear weapon years down the road, and has urged the U.S. to scrap the pending deal.
With the victory of his Likud Party, Netanyahu is stronger-positioned to keep making that case on the international stage — and needle Obama administration efforts to etch an agreement with Tehran.
Earnest said Wednesday that Kerry has called to congratulate Netanyahu. Obama has not yet, but will in the coming days, according to Earnest. A day earlier, he insisted that Obama has “no doubt” that the strong U.S.-Israel bond will endure “far beyond this election” no matter the result.
But David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Obama, tweeted overnight as returns were coming in: “Tightness of exits in Israel suggests Bibi’s shameful 11th hour demagoguery may have swayed enough votes to save him. But at what cost?”
Speaking on CNN on Wednesday, White House Director of Political Strategy David Simas congratulated the Israeli people — but notably, not Netanyahu personally.
“We want to congratulate the Israeli people for the democratic process of the election they engaged in with all of the parties that engage in that election,” he said. “As you know the hard work of coalition building now begins. Sometimes that takes a couple of weeks and we’re going to give space to the formation of that coalition government and we’re not going to weigh in one way of the other except to say that the United States and Israel have a historic and close relationship and that will continue going forward.”
Indeed, Netanyahu’s next step would be to build a coalition government.
With nearly all the votes counted, Likud appeared to have earned 30 out of parliament’s 120 seats and was in a position to build with relative ease a coalition government with its nationalist, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies.
The election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has governed the country for the past six years. Recent opinion polls indicated he was in trouble, giving chief rival Isaac Herzog of the opposition Zionist Union a slight lead. Exit polls Tuesday showed the two sides deadlocked but once the actual results came pouring in early Wednesday, Likud soared forward. Zionist Union wound up with just 24 seats.
Even before the final results were known, Netanyahu declared victory and pledged to form a new government quickly.
“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud,” Netanyahu told supporters at his election night headquarters. “I am proud of the people of Israel, who in the moment of truth knew how to distinguish between what is important and what is peripheral, and to insist on what is important.”
Netanyahu focused his campaign primarily on security issues, while his opponents instead pledged to address the country’s high cost of living and accused the leader of being out of touch with everyday people.
While his victory may rattle the Obama administration, conservatives worried about the Iran talks saw Netanyahu’s election as a strong sign.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is weighing another presidential bid, said in a written statement that “it is time for the U.S. government to stand with Israel once again.” He told Fox News on Wednesday that Netanyahu has a clear “mandate” and argued this is good not only for the U.S. but also other Middle Eastern countries worried about the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
“The worst thing that can happen is to trust Iran,” Huckabee said.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who also is flirting with another Republican presidential bid, likewise said in a statement Wednesday that, “It is my great hope that our next President will be able to stand side-by-side with Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu” to “defeat this Radical Islamist enemy and ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.