Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to President Joe Biden in a phone call Friday that the public comments he made a day earlier — in which he appeared to reject the idea of creating a Palestinian state — were not meant to foreclose that outcome in any form, a person familiar with the conversation told CNN.
Biden and Netanyahu discussed the possible attributes of a future Palestinian state that would ultimately need to be negotiated, the person added, describing the conversation as “serious” and “detailed.”
Biden administration officials have recently been engaged in discussions about a future demilitarized Palestinian state, an idea the president finds “intriguing,” the person said.
Biden is certainly familiar with the ideas of a demilitarized Palestinian state or one with a significantly limited military force that have been discussed over the years, one administration official said. And those are among the schools of thought that inform the president’s thinking as he pushes for a two-state solution with a security guarantee for Israel, the official added.
Hours after getting off the phone with Netanyahu, Biden made reference to that possibility when speaking to reporters at the White House, saying he believed “there are a number of types of two-state solutions.”
“There’s a number of countries that are members of the UN that … don’t have their own military; a number of states that have limitations, and so I think there’s ways in which this can work,” Biden said.
He was less clear exactly how he would achieve it.
“I’ll let you know when I get him to agree,” Biden told reporters.
Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s senior adviser, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Saturday that Israel intends for Palestinians to govern themselves but without the capability to threaten Israel.
“The idea is to find a formula where the Palestinians can rule themselves but not be in a position to threaten Israel,” Regev said. “I think that’s the formula that can help us move forward and find solutions that will be good for Israelis and good for Palestinians too.”
The Israeli prime minister’s office said in a statement Saturday: “In his conversation with President Biden, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his policy that after Hamas is destroyed Israel must retain security control over Gaza to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel, a requirement that contradicts the demand for Palestinian sovereignty.”
The lack of certainty only underscored the challenge Biden faces as he tries to apply pressure on Netanyahu to adopt a new battlefield approach and plan for a future in Gaza, only to be met with open resistance and disagreement.
Biden and Netanyahu remain publicly at odds over the fundamental question of what will happen to Gaza once the Israel-Hamas war concludes, despite intense American efforts over the past several months to engage officials in Israel and the wider region on a plan they hope can finally resolve the decades-long conflict.
Biden and his top officials — including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Israel and the region last week — have said the creation of a Palestinian state with guarantees for Israel’s security is the only way to finally bring peace and stability to the Middle East.
Netanyahu said during a news conference Thursday that he had rejected those calls, arguing such a step would clash with the security of Israel.
“In any future arrangement … Israel needs security control all territory west of Jordan. This clashes with the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty. What can you do?” he told a news conference in Tel Aviv when asked about reports that he told American officials he opposes the idea of Palestinian sovereignty.
How the two leaders bridge that gap remains a question, one Biden’s aides recognize won’t be quickly resolved. According to Biden, however, the prospect of a demilitarized Palestinian state is an opening.
One Arab leader who has recently discussed the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state in public is Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“We said that we are ready for this state to be demilitarized, and there can also be guarantees of forces, whether NATO forces, United Nations forces, or Arab or American forces, until we achieve security for both states, the nascent Palestinian state and the Israeli state,” Sisi said at a news conference in November.
Biden also told reporters on Friday that “given the right one,” he believed his Israeli counterpart would ultimately agree to a two-state solution.
Biden’s phone call with Netanyahu on Friday was their first in nearly a month and stretched around 40 minutes. It did not yield any new agreements about the future of Gaza or the trajectory of the conflict there, according to White House readouts.
In the telephone call, Biden “reiterated his strong conviction in the viability of a two-state solution — understanding of course, that we’re not going to get there tomorrow,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said following the call.
Biden and Netanyahu, who have known each other for more than four decades, have found themselves frequently at odds, both before the October 7 Hamas attacks and after. Biden has bemoaned Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition and told donors last month that his counterpart’s political predicament was making it difficult for the prime minister to alter his approach to Gaza.
Privately, American officials said they regarded Netanyahu’s latest statement as similarly politically motivated, as he finds himself under intense pressure inside Israel over the October 7 attacks, the inability to secure the release of additional hostages held by Hamas and an uncertain strategy in Gaza.
Rifts within Israeli society and even among Netanyahu’s own war cabinet were emerging Friday over the prime minister’s strategy, adding pressure to Netanyahu’s government. Family members of hostages and their supporters blocked a highway in Tel Aviv on Friday calling on the Israeli government and the international community to do more to help secure the release of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.
And in a television interview, Israeli war cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot urged the country’s leaders to better define the trajectory of the war in Gaza and said a longer ceasefire was the only way to secure the release of additional hostages. He said Israel needs fresh elections amid eroding public trust in Netanyahu’s leadership.
“We need to go to the polls and have an election in the next few months, in order to renew the trust as currently there is no trust,” Eisenkot told Israeli broadcaster Channel 12 during an interview Thursday evening. “The state of Israel is a democracy and needs to ask itself, after such a serious event, how do we go forward with a leadership that is responsible for such an absolute failure?”
Israel’s current politics have long frustrated Biden, who has name-checked the most right-wing members of Netanyahu’s government as standing in the way of a two-state solution.
Still, White House officials have said the president remains adamant that any differences with his counterpart are best aired behind the scenes rather than in public. Biden offered his Israeli counterpart and the people of Israel his unwavering support in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attack, even flying to the warzone to show what he said was his and the United States’ unequivocal support for their ally.
But that fulsome support has grown increasingly controversial and less tenable as Israel’s massive airstrikes campaign – followed by a ground incursion – resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza.
Even as public sentiment began to shift under Biden’s feet, with polls showing his support among younger voters and Arab Americans eroding, senior US officials insisted they would stick to the strategy of quietly counseling – and sometimes, criticizing – Israel on the war. The administration simply did not believe that publicly shaming Netanyahu and his government, and their war decisions, would be constructive.
Netanyahu’s most recent comments appeared to stand in contrast with that approach, allowing US-Israel rifts to spill into public view.
On Friday, senior administration officials sought to downplay Netanyahu’s most recent rejection of the idea of a Palestinian state, insisting he had said as much publicly in the past. Kirby said Biden was hardly “Pollyannish” about the prospects of reaching a two-state solution.
“He understands how hard it is,” he said, adding later: “We’re not going to agree on everything. We’ve said that, and good friends and allies can have those kinds of candid, forthright discussions, and we do.”
This headline and story have been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Mitchell McCluskey contributed to this report.
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