Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians during a press appearance with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office ahead of a private meeting Monday, their first encounter since July’s contentious Iran nuclear deal was struck and in fact their first since last fall.
The two struck a cordial tone in a marked change from often chilly ties between the two leaders, whose spats over the Iran deal and peace talks with the Palestinians have at times elbowed their way into the public view.
Before adjourning to meet privately, the two leaders said they would discuss American military aid to Israel, the Syrian civil war — particularly Hezbollah, the Islamic State and Iran’s roles in the violence — lowering tensions with the Palestinians and getting peace efforts back on track.
“I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace. We’ll never give up the hope for peace,” Netanyahu said. “And I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”
“I don’t think that anyone should doubt Israel’s determination to defend itself against terror and destruction,” Netanyahu said, “but neither should anyone doubt Israel’s willingness to make peace with any of its neighbors who genuinely want to achieve peace with us.”
Obama condemned “in the strongest terms Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens.” The past month has seen dozens of Palestinian terror attacks targeting Israeli military personnel and civilians across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel.
The president said he would discuss with Netanyahu ways “we can lower the temperature between Israelis and Palestinians, how we can get back on a path toward peace.”
Obama administration officials have signaled in recent days that the president no longer thinks a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of his term, in January 2017, is possible.
Netanyahu said he looked forward to discussing “practical ways in which we can lower the tension, increase stability, and move towards peace.”
Netanyahu’s remarks on being committed to a two-state solution seemed to run contrary to statements he made before the March 2015 elections in which he said he wouldn’t allow the creation of a Palestinian state on his watch.
Those comments were among others that Obama administration officials expressed umbrage over, leading to what some analysts described as a nadir in ties between the leaders.
Netanyahu didn’t meet with Obama during his visit to Washington in March to deliver a speech against the Iran nuclear deal before the US Congress. Tensions between Netanyahu and Obama have run high over the Israeli prime minister’s vocal opposition to the nuclear deal reached between world powers and the Islamic Republic.
During their White House meeting, Netanyahu was expected to request a significant increase in US military aid to Israel over the next 10 years as compensation for the nuclear deal.
After the meeting, which ran 45 minutes over schedule, aides close to Netanyahu described the sit-down as “good.”
“A lot of our time will be spent on a memorandum of understanding that we can potentially negotiate,” Obama said in remarks before the meeting. “It will be expiring in a couple of years, but we want to get a head start on that to make sure that both the United States and Israel can plan effectively for our defense needs going forward.”
Obama told reporters that “the security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities,” one which he said he has backed up in “both words and deeds.”
Obama said that there was “there’s no foreign leader who I’ve met more frequently” than Netanyahu, which he said was indicative of the close ties between the two countries.
The president said that while it was no secret that he and Netanyahu disagreed about the Iran nuclear deal, there remains no disagreement on the need to keep the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons or about “blunting and destabilizing activities that Iran may be taking place” in Syria.
“The military assistance that we provide, we consider not only an important part of our obligation to the security of the State of Israel but also an important part of US security infrastructure in the region,” Obama said.
Netanyahu made great efforts to thank the president for the US government’s “generous assistance” in helping Israel cope with its “defense burden” over the decades.