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PunditFact: Netanyahu changed course on two-state solution

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters at the party’s election headquarters March 18 in Tel Aviv. Before the elections, Israel had already become a source of division, rather than unity, for American Jews, who bitterly debated the ever-expanding Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories and the acceptable boundaries of dissent from Israeli policies. The outcome of the Israeli election will only deepen that polarization, experts say. Netanyahu’s anti-Arab campaign rhetoric and his rejection of a Palestinian state, they say, will further splinter American Jews into hard left and right camps, and intensify conflicts over what it means to be loyal to the Jewish state.
Published Mar. 23, 2015

Did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flip-flop on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal in the Middle East to help secure re-election?

That's at least the suggestion floating around in the days after Netanyahu's Likud Party won enough seats to retain coalition control of Israel's government.

"On the final day of his re-election campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu said that as long as he serves as prime minister of Israel, there will not be an independent Palestinian nation," read the top line of a Washington Post news report.

"Netanyahu's assertion, made on camera to an Israeli news website, appeared to reverse the prime minister's previous declarations of support for a sovereign Palestinian state," the Post report continued.

On Sunday, Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and said Netanyahu's comments were misinterpreted by many, including President Barack Obama.

"He didn't say what the president and others seem to suggest that he's saying," Dermer told host Chuck Todd. "And he was very clear about it in his interview with (NBC's) Andrea Mitchell. He didn't change his position. He didn't run around giving interviews saying he's now against the Palestinian state."

So which is it?

In actuality, Netanyahu's position on this issue is much more complicated than Dermer lets on. The claim rates Mostly False.

Here's what Netanyahu said in a video interview published on NRG, a right-leaning Israeli news website, the day before the March 17 general election:

"I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," Netanyahu said. "This is the genuine reality that has been created here in the past few years. Those who do not understand that bury their heads in the sand. The left-wing parties do it, bury their heads in the sand, time and again."

The reporter asked, "But if you are the prime minister, a Palestinian state will not arise?"

"Indeed," Netanyahu said. He went on:

"An international initiative will be presented to us, to return to 1967 borders, to divide Jerusalem. Those are real things. It is going to happen. We need to form a strong, firm national government, headed by Likud (his party), to push those pressures away."

Reports from the New York Times, the Post and others cast these comments as a departure from his speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009, when Netanyahu endorsed a two-state solution to the conflict — with caveats. Secretary of State John Kerry had been working on peace talks, of which the agreement of two states is the desired result, but those fell through last year.

Ultimately, it's hard to know Netanyahu's true position because his rhetoric has been inconsistent. Jonathan Schanzer, Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president for research and author of books on the conflict, offered several notes of context.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Netanyahu's support for the two-state solution has always been tepid, Schanzer said. In his first term that started in 1997, he opposed Palestinian statehood. The university speech in 2009 marked a switch, and he reaffirmed in October 2014 his support for "a vision of peace of two states for two peoples based on mutual recognition and rock-solid security arrangements on the ground" during a visit with Obama at the White House.

For him to say now, unequivocally, that there would be no Palestinian state during his time in office might seem to indicate that he is against it on principle, Schanzer said, "but he didn't say there would never be a two-state solution."

To Schanzer, that is a fine distinction. Netanyahu always seemed reluctant to be part of the peace talks brokered by the United States, but he showed up anyway, Schanzer said. For him to acknowledge how poorly the talks have gone and how unlikely they are to improve, given the dwindling tenures of all leaders involved, "is actually a moment of honesty," he said.

Netanyahu's objections to a nuclear agreement with Iran was another topic on the Sunday news shows. On Fox News Sunday, conservative pundit Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, claimed Obama is going too far to cut a deal with the Iranian government at the expense of America's Israeli allies.

To that point, she said, international nuclear observers have already accused Iran of breaking the rules of its nuclear agreements.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, "last month said the Iranians are not currently living up to their obligations," Cheney claimed.

The key to understanding Cheney's claim is knowing that she's not talking about the interim agreement — between Iran, the United States and five other world powers — known as the Joint Plan of Action. According to the IAEA, Iran has not violated that agreement.

But the IAEA reported in February that they could not confirm that Iran was fully complying with the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty because Iran did not provide enough information for the agency to clarify outstanding questions.

"The Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities," the report said.

In remarks to the IAEA Board of Governors on March 10, director general Yukiya Amano elaborated on the report's findings. The IAEA is able to verify that while all of Iran's declared nuclear material and activities are peaceful and in accordance with their safeguard agreements, they are not able to make the same assurances about undeclared material and activities.

"The Agency remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile," the report said.

Iran's IAEA envoy told Iranian media that the agency's claims were baseless, according to Reuters.

Given the context of Cheney's comments, people could assume she was talking about the Joint Plan of Action. Because that clarification is needed, we rate her statement Mostly True.

Lauren Carroll contributed to this report. Read the full fact-checks at PunditFact.com.

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