On polling day, Netanyahu and his Likud party warned that left-wing groups were trying to skew the result by bussing Israeli Arabs to voting stations.
And on the eve of the election, Netanyahu appeared to rule out Palestinian statehood on his watch, saying establishing a Palestinian state today would be tantamount to yielding territory to the forces of radical Islam, who will use it to attack Israel.
“The Obama administration is deeply concerned by the use of divisive rhetoric in Israel that sought to marginalize Arab Israeli citizens,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One.
“This rhetoric undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together,” he added. “These are views the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis.”
Tuesday’s comments about Israeli Arab voting stoked controversy in Israel, prompting Netanyahu at a press conference later that day – before polls closed – to say that his concerns were focused on the intervention, not on the fact Arab citizens were voting.
“What’s wrong is not that Arab citizens are voting, but that massive funds from abroad from left-wing NGOs and foreign governments are bringing them en masse to the polls in an organized way, thus twisting the true will of all Israeli citizens who are voting.” The aim, he said, was to benefit the Israeli left wing.
In a victory speech to supporters early Wednesday, Netanyahu said all of Israel’s citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, were important, and important to him. About 25 percent of Israel’s citizens are non-Jewish, most of them Arab.
In his remarks to reporters traveling with the president to Cleveland, Ohio Earnest also raised concern about Netanyahu’s remarks on Palestinian statehood.
“It has been the policy of the United States for more than 20 years that a two-state solution is the goal of resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinian people,” he said.
“In the context of the recent election, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated a change in his position. And based on those comments, the United States will evaluate our approach to the situation moving forward.”
On the fact that Obama had yet to phone Netanyahu to congratulate him, Earnest sounded a defensive note, preempting any question about why that was the case by saying that Obama had not called immediately after previous Israeli elections either.
“There have been two Israeli elections during the Obama administration. In both situations, in the aftermath of both elections, the president did not telephone Prime Minister Netanyahu until he’d already been directed by the Israeli president to begin the process of forming a coalition government.”
“So I'm not suggesting that the president will wait until that direction has been handed down this time,” he said. “I’m merely pointing out that in previous situations the president has not telephoned the Israeli prime minister on the day after the elections.”
Earnest said he did expect Obama would phone “in the coming days” and pointed out that Secretary of State John Kerry has done so. (State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described the conversation as a “brief” congratulatory call and said it did not deal with “substantive issues.”)
Several heads of government did congratulate Netanyahu, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who tweeted “congratulations my friend Bibi Netanyahu,” in English and Hebrew), Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister David Cameron. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also called to congratulate him.
A number of U.S. lawmakers put out messages of congratulation to the Israeli leader. They included Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who said Netanyahu’s “success is all the more impressive given the powerful forces that tried to undermine him, including, sadly, the full weight of the Obama political team.”
“Everyone knows that the Obama administration was rooting for the prime minister to lose,” said Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in a statement, “but now is the time for the president to change course and strengthen our relationship with our great ally Israel, and stop Iran from securing a nuclear weapon.”Asked about such criticism, Earnest said that “the administration, in very conspicuous fashion, avoided leaving anybody with even the appearance of an administration effort to influence the outcome of the elections one way or the other.”
He noted that Obama had avoided meeting with Netanyahu during his visit to Washington several weeks before the election. (The visit was dominated by a controversial address before Congress in which Netanyahu warned that a proposed nuclear deal with Iran would be dangerous for Israel, the region and the world.)
“So this administration has gone to great lengths to avoid weighing in on one side or the other,” Earnest said. “And the reason for that is we believe that the interest between our two countries is well served by preventing this relationship from being subjected to a lot of aggressive partisan rhetoric.”
As for differences between Obama and Netanyahu over the Iran negotiations, and efforts by congressional Republicans to weigh in on the talks, Earnest said he did not expect the election outcome to “have a substantial impact on our ongoing efforts to resolve diplomatically the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.”
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has had ample opportunity to make very clear what his views are about that situation, so I’m not sure that the events over the last 24 hours or so has a material impact on that.”
Meanwhile Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat said the election outcome “would not have been possible had the international community held Israel to account for its systematic violations of international law.”
He urged the world to “rally behind Palestinian efforts to internationalize our struggle for dignity and freedom through the International Criminal Court and through all other peaceful means.”