(Adds White House reaction, background, context)
By Matt Spetalnick and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied on Thursday abandoning his commitment to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, backing away from pre-election comments that deepened a rift with Israel’s ally the United States.
But the White House, unmoved by Netanyahu’s post-election effort to backtrack, delivered a fresh rebuke against the Israeli leader and signaled that Washington may reconsider its long-standing policy of shielding Israel from international pressure at the United Nations.
“I haven’t changed my policy. I never retracted my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said in an interview with MSNBC two days after winning a bitterly contested Israeli election.
“What has changed is the reality,” Netanyahu said, citing the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the Hamas militant group’s continued control of the Gaza Strip.
Shortly after Netanyahu’s interview aired, U.S. officials made clear they were not buying it. The White House warned there would be “consequences” for Israel as the Obama administration re-evaluates its Middle East diplomatic strategy and monitors the formation of Netanyahu’s new ruling coalition.
“He walked back from commitments that Israel had previously made to a two-state solution,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “It is cause for the United States to evaluate what our path is forward.”
The harsh U.S. response signaled that U.S.-Israeli relations, already at their lowest point since President Barack Obama took office, could deteriorate even further.
Among the most serious risks for Israel would be a shift in Washington’s posture at the United Nations. The United States has long stood in the way of Palestinian efforts to get a U.N. resolution recognizing its statehood, including threatening to use its veto, and has protected Israel from efforts to isolate it internationally.
While assuring the United States’ commitment to military and intelligence cooperation with Israel, Earnest left the door open to the possibility that Washington might be less diligent about shielding Israel diplomatically in the future.
“Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations had been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome,” he said. “Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution.”
Netanyahu touched off the diplomatic storm with his comments on the eve of Tuesday’s election that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, widely seen as intended to mobilize his right-wing base when his electoral hopes were flagging.
The goal of Palestinian statehood is a cornerstone of both U.S. diplomacy going back decades and President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. But Obama’s previous peace efforts have failed and prospects for renewed diplomacy were already low.
U.S. officials scolded Netanyahu not only for abandoning his commitment to a Palestinian state but for his election-day accusation that left-wingers were working to get Israel’s minority Arab voters out “in droves” to sway the election.
“It’s a pretty cynical tactic and there’s no doubt it’s divisive,” Earnest said.
He said Obama was likely to call Netanyahu as early as Thursday to congratulate him on his victory but did not rule out the possibility that the president would also raise concerns about the comments on Arab Israelis.
Netanyahu denied he had been trying to suppress the votes of Arab citizens or that his comments were racist.
He also backed away from his pre-election statement rejecting Palestinian statehood, but made clear that he believed for now political and security conditions were not amenable.
“I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change,” he told MSNBC.
In another signal that the administration is looking to turn up the heat on Netanyahu, the White House is sending Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, to address the liberal pro-Israel U.S.-based group J Street on Monday. The group, a proponent of two states side by side, opposed Netanyahu in the election campaign.
Netanyahu’s frosty relations with Obama worsened when he accepted a Republican invitation to speak to Congress two weeks before the Israeli election, a move assailed by Democratic leaders as an insult to the presidency and a breach of protocol. (Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov, Jeff Mason and Julia Edwards; Editing by Howard Goller, Toni Reinhold)