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Top Obama aide: U.S. can’t ignore Netanyahu’s comments

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s chief of staff rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to distance himself from his comments rejecting Palestinian statehood, telling an Israel advocacy group Monday that the U.S. can’t just overlook what Netanyahu said on the eve of his re-election.

In a speech to J Street, an Israel advocacy group that is sharply critical of Netanyahu, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough also warned Israel against annexing the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to establish their future state. He said Netanyahu’s prediction that a Palestinian state wouldn’t come about on his watch was “so very troubling” and called into question Netanyahu’s broader commitment to the two-state solution the U.S. and Israel have officially supported for years.

“We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made,” McDonough said.

McDonough’s critique of the Israeli leader came as both Israelis and Palestinians are closely watching to see how U.S. policy will change in practical terms after Netanyahu’s success in the elections. Obama has said the U.S. must re-evaluate its approach to pursuing Mideast peace because of Netanyahu’s comments, and has entertained speculation the U.S. will be less willing to come to Israel’s defense in the United Nations. The U.S. has voted against U.N. resolutions supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, insisting the matter should be negotiated directly with Israel.

On Monday, Netanyahu apologized to Israel’s Arab citizens for another set of remarks that offended members of the community and drew additional U.S. criticism. Netanyahu said he never intended to offend the country’s Arab-Israeli minority, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether that apology would placate those in Israel and elsewhere who took offense.

Obama’s decision to dispatch his chief of staff to speak to J Street, just days after the election, was perceived as another sign that Obama intends to take a tougher tack toward Netanyahu despite his insistence that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is still strong. Although the group considers itself pro-Israel, it often advocates against the Israeli government’s positions toward Palestinians.

McDonough received a standing ovation when he called out Israel’s government for ongoing construction of settlements in the West Bank. He said Israel cannot control another people forever, warning that such a move would be illegal and would contribute to Israel’s “total isolation” from the international community.

“An occupation that has lasted more than 50 years must end,” McDonough said.

JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press