Netanyahu Apologizes; White House Is Unmoved – NYTimes.com

by NewsStand

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel apologized on Monday for making what were widely condemned as racist comments last week in saying that Arab citizens were voting in “droves.”

But even as he spoke with a group of Israeli Arabs gathered at his Jerusalem residence, the White House issued a new signal that it remained furious with Mr. Netanyahu for campaign comments that also appeared to close the door on a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.

In the days since the Israeli election, Mr. Netanyahu has been denounced for two statements he made toward the conclusion: his assertion that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch, and his alarm over voting by Israeli Arab citizens. He has been trying, with limited success, to backpedal on both.

In Washington, Denis McDonough, President Obama’s chief of staff, said in a speech Monday that Mr. Netanyahu’s pre-election assertions about Palestinian statehood were “very troubling.” It was the latest in a series of public scoldings by senior members of Mr. Obama’s team, including one by the president himself, rejecting the prime minister’s attempts to explain himself.

On the eve of the recent Israeli election, the prime minister said that no Palestinian state would be created on his watch. Two days later, he began to backtrack.

“After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position, but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution,” Mr. McDonough told the annual conference of J Street, a pro-Israel group aligned with the Democratic Party.

After the voting, Mr. Netanyahu said his reference to Israeli Arabs had not been intended to dissuade them from voting but to encourage his own supporters to cast ballots. He said his remarks on a Palestinian state had been widely misunderstood and that he still supported the idea but not under current conditions.

The White House was unmoved by the recalibration, and Mr. Obama offered harsh criticism of Mr. Netanyahu in an interview with The Huffington Post on Saturday.

While the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said Monday that it was appropriate for Mr. Netanyahu to apologize for his comments about Israeli Arabs, there was no sign of any softening from the administration over its anger with Mr. Netanyahu over his comments about the Palestinian question.

“We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made,” Mr. McDonough said. He told a crowd of 3,000 at the J Street meeting that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank “must end.”

The two-state solution “remains our goal today, because it is the only way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state,” he added.

In another speech to the same group Monday evening, James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, sharply criticized Mr. Netanyahu for not living up to his past promises to work for peace. “His actions have not matched his rhetoric,” he said.

On the United States’ nuclear talks with Iran, Mr. Baker said critics should not judge an agreement before it is reached and warned of the dire consequences of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if talks fail. “Neither the United States nor Israel should let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.

Israelis and American Jewish leaders had largely embraced Mr. Netanyahu’s backpedaling on the Palestinian state, in which he insisted he had not reversed his 2009 endorsement of the concept of two states for two peoples. The language he used regarding Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens, however, had fomented domestic discord in quarters that Mr. Netanyahu counts on.

“I know that my comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli Arab community,” Mr. Netanyahu said, according to a translation provided by his political party, Likud. “This was never my intent. I apologize for this.”

Critics included President Reuven Rivlin of Israel, whose first months in office have been marked by outreach to the state’s non-Jewish minorities and who said on Sunday: “Everyone must be careful in their comments, especially those that the entire world hears.”

Mr. Rivlin officially handed Mr. Netanyahu the keys to form that next government on Monday, announcing amid two days of consultations with leaders of 10 political factions, that, as expected, he had the backing of 67 of the 120 members of Parliament elected last week.

Likud won a decisive victory, with 30 Parliament seats, over the center-left Zionist Union’s 24, and most analysts think Mr. Netanyahu will form a narrow coalition of rightist and religious parties as he starts his third consecutive and fourth overall term at Israel’s helm. He has until May 7 to put the pieces in place, a ritual of deal-making over ministries and policy positions.

This year, it is taking place against a backdrop of tension after a divisive campaign of personal attacks.

It was midway through last Tuesday’s balloting that Mr. Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page expressing alarm that Arabs were “being bused to the polling stations in droves” by left-wing organizations.

The White House quickly expressed alarm at what it called “divisive rhetoric,” and Mr. Obama gave his counterpart a strongly worded lecture about the matter in a congratulatory call two days after the election.

“We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions — that although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly,” Mr. Obama told The Huffington Post. “If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also, I think, starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.”

Amid signs that this had not assuaged the outrage within Israel or abroad, Mr. Netanyahu went further on Monday to apologize directly to an invited group of Muslim, Christian, Bedouin and Druse supporters.

“I view myself as the prime minister of each and every citizen of Israel, without any prejudice based on religion, ethnicity or gender,” he said in Jerusalem. “I view every citizen as my partner in building a more secure, more prosperous state of Israel and a nation that benefits the needs and interests of all our citizenry.”

A video circulated by Likud officials showed several dozen Arab leaders, some in traditional headgear, responding with applause that brought some to their feet at the words “I apologize.”

In New York, the Anti-Defamation League, which had urged Mr. Netanyahu to apologize, issued a statement praising him for doing so and his previous government for investing to improve Arab education and employment.

Lawmakers from Israel’s joint list of Arab political parties — who said they were not invited to Mr. Netanyahu’s residence on Monday — said his statement was not sufficient.

“To our regret, the racism of Netanyahu and his governments did not begin and will not end with this inciting statement,” said a statement from the parties, which won 13 parliamentary seats in last week’s balloting. “Racist and separatist legislation and discriminating policies are Netanyahu’s working plan for the new Parliament, and so we are left with no option but to reject his apology and to continue our struggle for equality for the Arab population.”

Netanyahu Apologizes; White House Is Unmoved – NYTimes.com.

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