Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state Monday, setting off another potential showdown with the Obama administration should the Israeli leader prevail at the ballot box the following day.
In the campaign’s waning hours, an embattled Netanyahu tried to make the case that he deserved a third term in office because he best can handle threats to Israel and that a Palestinian state won’t be formed because of the danger it would pose.
“Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to radical Islam,” he said, mocking those on the left who “stick their head in the sand” on the issue.
His statements are a reversal on a key issue not just for Israeli voters but the country’s foreign partners, particularly the United States, which has made the creation of a Palestinian state a major policy aim.
Netanyahu has repeatedly sparred with President Barack Obama over U.S. efforts to seal a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, and flaring tensions between two leaders erupted in recent weeks when the prime minister came to Washington to lobby against the White House’s Iran policy.
Netanyahu’s statements add more fuel to that fire, and further set back any hope for a peace agreement during Obama’s final two years in office.
Differences over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians have been a major friction point between the two countries ever since the two men assumed office in 2009.
One of Obama’s first acts was to designate a Middle East envoy and assign him to work intensively on an Arab-Israeli peace deal, and various attempts at peace-making became defining initiatives for the administration over several years.
The White House was eager to have Netanyahu add momentum to their efforts and immediately voice support for a Palestinian state, but the new prime minister didn’t endorse a Palestinian state until after his first White House visit that spring, only doing so during a speech back in Israel that June.
Last week, Netanyahu said that vision was now void given the developments in the region. Monday’s interview made more explicit his objections to a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s ability to implement any shift on the issue depends on his winning the election and then forming a right-wing government – even if he prevails over the center-left Zionist Union, leading in most polls, he might end up forming a “national unity” government with the party, which would moderate his policies.
But just the threat of such a change is likely not to go over well in the White House.
Officials there declined to respond to Netanyahu’s comments Monday.
“This is not going to be a welcome development, and I suspect will alter the strategy were the administration to seek to re-engage on the peace process,” said Robert Danin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
Though the election campaign has put pressure on Netanyahu to renounce his support of Palestinian statehood, political expediency might not be the only factor in his comments.
“Clearly domestic politics are paramount,” said Danin, now with the Council on Foreign Relations and in Israel for the vote. But he added that Netanyahu “has shown no inclination to go the other way, in other words to pursue the realization of a Palestinian state.”
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.