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Mar 18, 2015 3:46 PM

Netanyahu victory leaves damage in wake

The Associated Press

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strong showing in national elections this week has come with a price: He has managed to antagonize friends and foes alike with hard-line rhetoric on the campaign trail.

While the tough talk gave Netanyahu a last-minute boost in the polls, the Israeli leader could now face a difficult task convincing an already skeptical world that he is serious about reaching peace with his Arab neighbors particularly if, as expected, he forms a new government comprised of religious and nationalistic parties.

Trailing in opinion polls, Netanyahu took a sharp turn to the right in the final days of the campaign to shore up support among his core nationalistic constituency.

He vowed to increase settlement construction in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' would-be capital, and rejected the idea of a Palestinian state in current conditions putting him at odds with U.S. and European positions and reversing his own policy of the past six years.

In a last-ditch attempt to spur his supporters to the polls Tuesday, he warned that Arab citizens were voting "in droves" and endangering years of rule by his Likud Party. The comments drew accusations of racism from Israeli Arabs and a White House rebuke.

In Washington, the Obama administration said Wednesday that it was "deeply concerned" by the divisive language used by the Likud.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest also said the U.S. would have to rethink the best way to bring about a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a cornerstone of U.S. Mideast policy for years after Netanyahu rejected the idea.

"Based on those comments, the U.S. will evaluate our position going forward," Earnest told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One on a flight to Cleveland.

State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said Secretary of State John Kerry had called Netanyahu to congratulate him. But she refused to describe the conversation as "warm" or friendly.

Netanyahu's controversial stance appears to have paid off at home. Thought to be in danger of being voted out of office just a few days ago, the Likud emerged as the largest party in parliament when near-final results trickled in Wednesday, leaving it in position to lead the next coalition government. But the comments may have reinforced a belief in many world capitals that Netanyahu isn't serious about peace.

Dore Gold, a confidant and unofficial adviser to Netanyahu, said he was confident the prime minister could repair the relationship with the U.S., Israel's closest and most important ally.

"The U.S. and Israel have had very sharp disagreements in the past about different aspects of Mideast policy but have usually been able to overcome the differences," Gold said. "I suspect that is exactly what is going to happen this time as well."

Gold declined to speculate on what Netanyahu might do, saying only that he is a masterful diplomat who knows "exactly how to address the U.S.-Israel relationship in a positive way."

Elliot Abrams, a former adviser on Mideast policy to President George W. Bush, dismissed Netanyahu's campaign tactics as "hot rhetoric."

"I'm not sure they give us much insight into how he's going to govern," Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, told a briefing for reporters.

The Likud led the election by capturing 30 seats in the 120-member parliament, according to near-final results released Wednesday.

Netanyahu is expected to cobble together a majority coalition in the coming weeks made up of religious and nationalist parties that generally oppose concessions toward the Palestinians, and a new centrist party whose agenda is focused almost entirely on domestic economic matters. The issue of the Palestinians is not expected to be high on the agenda.

Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Netanyahu's, said withdrawing from captured land to make way for a Palestinian state "is not relevant" in the current climate. He said Israel believes any land it relinquishes to the Palestinians will fall into the hands of hostile militant groups like Hamas or the Islamic State.

"Even though I understand the urge for peace now, we can't ignore the reality in the Middle East," he told Channel 10 TV. The only alternative, he said, is to "secure ourselves and preserve the status quo because we do not have a real partner for peace."

For now, the United States and the European Union appear set to give the next Israeli government the benefit of the doubt.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said in a statement that the 28-nation bloc was "committed to working with the incoming Israeli government on a mutually beneficial relationship as well as on the re-launch of the peace process."

It remains unclear, however, how long the world will wait.

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schafer said his government took Netanyahu's comments on Palestinian independence "very seriously."

"We assume and hope that the current Israeli government's declared aim remains, which is to enter into talks with the Palestinians about a negotiated two-state solution at the end of which there will be a Palestinian state," he said.

An EU diplomat in Brussels said officials considered Netanyahu's rhetoric a "fundamental breach of the two-state solution." He said if Israel sticks to that policy, the EU will use its "leverage."

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations, refused to elaborate. But European officials in the past have discussed various potential measures, starting with the labeling of products made in West Bank settlements.

At home, meanwhile, Netanyahu risks facing a backlash from Israel's own Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population. Netanyahu's doomsday warnings about high Arab voter turnout prompted angry allegations of racism.

Following the election, Netanyahu appeared to be trying to sooth tensions. On Wednesday, he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City and vowed to "do anything in my power to ensure the well-being and security of all the citizens of Israel."

But Aida Tuma-Suleiman, an Arab lawmaker, said the country's Arab citizens would not forget so easily. Israeli Arabs have long complained of discrimination.

"Yesterday Netanyahu divided the citizens of Israel. It is them and us, the Jews against the Arabs," she told Channel 10 TV. "I won't let that go quietly. It is dangerous. If someone in France or England or Belgium would say, 'Go out and vote because the Jewish Belgians are voting,' what would have happened?"


Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee in Washington, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.


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