After a divisive election campaign by incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that further soured his already troubled relationship with the US, President Barack Obama's chief of staff said Monday that Israel's occupation of the West Bank "must end," and that Obama will "never stop working for a two-state solution."
Speaking to a left-leaning audience at a conference hosted by J Street, a pro-Israel group aligned with the Democratic Party, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough received a round of applause after he said, "Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely."
In the final hours of his campaign last week, Netanyahu, known as "Bibi" to supporters and critics alike, promised that a Palestinian state would not be established under his watch. He also pledged to continue building Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied territories beyond the 1967 lines.
In a last-minute bid to push surge of conservative voters to the polls on election day, Netanyahu's Likud party sent out a barrage of text messages to Israeli cellphones warning that "the Arabs are voting in droves."
Netanyahu has since attempted to backtrack, claiming in an interview with MSNBC that he is actually in favor of "a peaceful two-state solution." He also issued a public statement of regret over any comments that may have offended Israeli Arab citizens, who comprise 20 percent of the country's population.
"This was never my intent. I apologize for this. I view myself as the prime minister of each and every citizen of Israel, without any prejudice based on religion, ethnicity or gender," Netanyahu said Monday at his Jerusalem residence during a meeting with members of the Arab community.
Netanyahu's political flip-flopping has not been well received in the US. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Obama described a frosty phone call in which he told the Israeli prime minister that it would now be "hard to find a path where people seriously believe [peace] negotiations are possible."
The president also said Netanyahu's actions "erode the meaning of democracy," and give "ammunition to folks who don't believe in a Jewish state."
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is expected to officially recommend Wednesday that Netanyahu head the formation of the country's next government. Consultations over the weekend showed the Likud leader commands the support of enough parties to pull together a coalition with the required 61 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
In Israel, the "Joint List," a coalition of Arab candidates who stood on a shared platform during the recent election, sharply rejected the prime minister's attempt at an apology, issuing a statement Monday that called his remarks "empty words intended to preserve his racist regime."
"Sadly, the racism of Netanyahu and his government did not start with this statement and it surely will not be its end," the statement said. "Racist and exclusionary legislation are part of Netanyahu's work plan for the next Knesset, and thus we have no choice but to reject this apology."
Speaking on an Israeli television channel, Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, reportedly said the prime minister's apology was "not real," and accused him of shameless "zigzagging."
Asked Monday about Netanyahu's apology, State Department spokeswoman Melanie Hart told reporters that he had said "diametrically opposite things in a matter of a week."
"When he says one thing one day and another thing another it's impossible to tell if he's sincere," Hart added. "We can't read his mind."
Despite the ongoing disputes, the US has emphasized that it will continue providing its annual $3 billion in military aid to Israel, and that security and intelligence cooperation between the two countries will not cease.
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