White House Chief of Staff at J Street: 'Occupation' by Israelis 'Must End'

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough today called for an end to Israel's "occupation" of the Palestinians and vowed that the Obama administration won't "pretend" that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't make his campaign remarks about no two-state solution.

McDonough thanked the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" -- as J Street bills itself -- and pro-Palestinian lobbying group for the "important work you do around the country," calling it "an organization that, in the best tradition of the American Jewish community, shares a set of values about the type of country that we are – a democracy where all of our people can access opportunity."

"President Obama asked me to convey his deep appreciation to all of you for your partnership and your work on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship, especially building support for our efforts to advance a two-state solution," he said.

McDonough spent much of his speech, though, on issues other than the Mideast: solar energy, the auto industry, job growth, energy independence, and the fifth anniversary of Obamacare. He also spent significant time taking shots at the new Republican budget.

"Of course, our relationship with Israel isn’t defined by numbers in a budget. Ours is a deep and abiding partnership between two vibrant democracies. We saw that democracy in action when Israelis of all backgrounds—Jewish and Arab, religious and secular–cast their ballots last week. At the heart of any democracy is the right of all citizens to participate equally," he said. J Street lobbied heavily against Netanyahu and the Likud party.

McDonough said in Thursday's congratulatory call from Obama to Netanyahu the president "committed to continuing consultations on a range of regional issues, including resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

"No matter who leads Israel, America’s commitment to Israel’s security will never waver," he said, noting money allocated by Congress and approved by the administration to spend on the Iron Dome missile defense system and next year's delivery of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

"We continue to believe that the best way to safeguard Israel’s long-term security is to bring about a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians—two states for two peoples, living side-by-side in security and peace," he said, adding that's why Netanyahu's "comments on the eve of the election—in which he first intimated and then made very clear in response to a follow up question that a Palestinian state will not be established while he is prime minister—were so troubling."

"After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position, but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution, as did his suggestion that the construction of settlements has a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian communities and his claim that conditions in the larger Middle East must be more stable before a Palestinian state can be established. We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations."

Netanyahu clarified his comments to note that the conditions for a two-state solution currently do not exist as Fatah remains allied with Hamas and they refuse to recognize Israel or stop incitement.

"In recent days, some have suggested our reaction to this issue is a matter of personal pique," McDonough told the crowd. "Nothing could be further from the truth. America’s commitment to a two-state solution is fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. It’s been the goal of both Republican and Democratic presidents, and it remains our goal today. Because it is the only way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state."

That's why, he said, Obama now wants to "re-evaluate our approach to the peace process and how we pursue the cause of peace – because, like all of you, we care deeply about Israel and its future."

"In the end, we know what a peace agreement should look like. The borders of Israel and an independent Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. Each state needs secure and recognized borders, and there must be robust provisions that safeguard Israel’s security. An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state."

McDonough said the "truth" is "Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely."

He insisted that Israel accepting a two-state solution "would deal a knock-out blow to calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions" and "would undercut efforts to isolate Israel in the international community and roll back de-legitimization efforts."

The White House chief of staff also delivered the standard administration line on Iran negotiations, saying they won't accept a bad deal but stressing that they're pursing a deal that's "both realistic and achievable."

"Congress should not seek to undermine negotiations before a deal is reached," McDonough said. "...I’m sure you heard about the letter some Republican senators addressed directly to Iran’s leaders.  It was a blatant political move—as the president said, that is not how America does its business."

He called the letter "critically flawed in its legal reasoning" as the administration is "pursuing a political arrangement with Iran that does not require congressional approval."

"Some senators have also proposed legislation that would torpedo diplomacy by suggesting Congress must vote on any deal and by stripping the President of his existing authorities to waive sanctions. Let’s be very clear about what this would do. It would embolden hard-liners in Iran. It would separate the United States from our allies," McDonough said, adding "it would set a damaging precedent by limiting the ability of future presidents to conduct essential diplomatic negotiations."

"...If a deal is reached, we will share the details and technical documents with Congress, at which point we welcome a full debate—after all, only Congress could terminate U.S. statutory sanctions on Iran during the duration of the agreement."

McDonough was the administration representative to the annual conference, facing a much more friendly crowd than National Security Advisor Susan Rice did weeks ago at the AIPAC mega-conference.