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Mar 19, 5:18 PM EDT

Israeli leader backtracks from Palestinian state opposition


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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Days after winning re-election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday backtracked from hard-line statements against the establishment of a Palestinian state in the face of a diplomatic backlash.

In the closing days of his campaign, Netanyahu said there could be no Palestinian state while regional violence and chaos persist - conditions that could rule out progress on the issue for many years. The comments, aimed at appealing to his nationalist voter base, angered the Obama administration, which views a two-state solution as a top foreign policy priority.

Netanyahu said in a TV interview Thursday that he remains committed to Palestinian statehood - if conditions in the region improve -- and to the two-state vision first spelled out in a landmark 2009 speech at Israel's Bar Ilan University.

"I haven't changed my policy," he said in a full interview with MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports," excerpts of which will be shown on NBC's "Nightly News" later on. "I never retracted my speech."

At the time, he said he would agree to a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. The Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has recognized Israel as a state but refuses to recognize its Jewish character, and last year formed a unity government backed by the Hamas militant group, which is sworn to Israel's destruction.

In the interview, Netanyahu also pointed to the presence of hostile Islamic groups across the region and said that any captured territory handed over to Abbas would be taken over by militants. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and two years later Hamas seized control of the coastal territory, ousting forces loyal to Abbas.

"I don't want a one-state solution, I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that circumstances have to change," Netanyahu said. "And every territory that is vacated in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces."

"You can't impose peace. And in any case, if you want to get peace, you've got to get the Palestinian leadership to abandon their pact with Hamas and engage in genuine negotiations with Israel for an achievable peace," Netanyahu said. "You have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace. We are. It's time that we saw the pressure on the Palestinians to show that they are committed too," he said.

A day before the election Netanyahu told the Israeli nrg news website that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch because of the current climate in the region.

"Whoever ignores that is burying his head in the sand. The left is doing that, burying its head in the sand time after time," he said in the video interview. When asked if that means a Palestinian state will not be established if he is elected, Netanyahu replied, "Indeed."

The remarks drew heavy criticism from Washington, which said Wednesday that it was re-evaluating its options after Netanyahu's hardline comments. Relations between Netanyahu and the Obama administration were already at a low point after Netanyahu addressed Congress earlier this month on negotiations with Iran. The address was arranged with Republicans behind the White House's back, a breach of diplomatic protocol.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that White House officials were talking to their Israeli counterparts to set up a call between Obama and Netanyahu, possible later in the day.

He reiterated the White House view that Netanyahu's pre-election comments regarding a Palestinian state would mean the U.S. would have to reconsider its approach to Israel. He did not go into specifics but pointedly cited the U.N. as an example of where the U.S. has supported Israel in the past.

The tough talk was part of a last-ditch attempt by Netanyahu to spur his more hardline supporters to the polls in the final days of his campaign after it appeared he was losing voters to a more hawkish party.

On Tuesday, just a few hours before voting stations across the country shut, he warned that Arab citizens were voting "in droves" and endangering years of rule by his Likud Party. The comments drew accusations of racism in Israel, especially from its Arab minority, and a White House rebuke.

In Washington, the Obama administration said it was "deeply concerned" by the divisive language. And on Thursday, Earnest called it a "cynical election-day tactic that was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab Israeli vote."

In the MSNBC interview Netanyahu said he was "very proud of the fact that Israel is the one country in a very broad radius that -- in which Arabs have free and fair elections. That's sacrosanct. That will never change," he said.

He repeated allegations he made during the campaign that external elements had funded the Joint List, a recently established alliance of four small, mostly Arab parties. Arab citizens make up 20 percent of Israel's population.

"I wasn't trying to suppress a vote; I was trying to get something to counter a foreign-funded effort to get votes that are intended to topple my party. And I was calling on our voters to come out," he said.

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Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.

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