NEW YORK — The meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama was held in a very positive, even “light-hearted atmosphere,” a senior Israeli official said Wednesday, hours after the two leaders met in what was presumably the last encounter in their current positions.
The official, part of the Israeli delegation to New York, denied that US concerns over settlements had played a central role in the talks, contradicting a White House official who reported that Netanyahu and Obama clashed over the issue.
There is a “mellowing” in the personal relations between the two leaders, the Israeli official said.
“There is an interesting change in the relations [between Netanyahu and Obama]. It’s like an on old couple that is just getting to know each other.”
Another senior official in the prime minister’s delegation even compared the two leaders to Statler and Waldorf, the two grumpy old men from the Muppet Show.
That relationship was on display as the two leaders sat down in front of the cameras before their meeting, joking about golf and being able to avoid stuffy meetings when Obama visits Israel next.
Iran, which has proven a point of contention between the two, did not come up at all, and Obama only made brief mention of peace efforts with the Palestinians and concerns over settlement building.
But behind closed doors, senior Obama administration officials claimed Obama was more pointed, raising “profound US concerns” that settlement-building was eroding prospects for peace. Netanyahu challenged that notion, said one official, adding that the two leaders had not “papered over” their differences.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes had told reporters before the meeting that he was certain that Obama would raise the issue of “continued settlement activity, the potential viability of a Palestinian state in the face of that settlement activity.” However, he downplayed reports that Obama would seek to push forward a new peace initiative.
The Israeli official confirmed that the possibility of a US-led initiative to advance the peace process in the period between the US elections on November 4 and Inauguration Day on January 20 was not discussed at all during the meeting.
“There’s an elephant in the room. But [they] didn’t talk about it,” the official said, noting that both knew the elephant was there.
The senior Israeli official said Israel’s settlement policy was the sole bone of contention between the prime minister and the president.
Netanyahu presented his view, arguing that the few thousand Israelis in the West Bank are no obstacle to peace, but the Palestinians’ refusal to drop their demand for the right of return and to recognize a Jewish state in any borders are.
“There are differences of opinion, that is not new,” the senior official said. The discussions over settlements “weren’t the essence of the meeting. They didn’t take up much time in the conversation. It was a marginal part of the meeting.”
Most of the meeting dealt with security and intelligence matters in the Middle East, the senior official said.
Syria was discussed at length, and even Iran came up, he added, refusing to elaborate.
“We agree on almost everything. We coordinate on more things than people think,” the senior official said, adding that intelligence cooperation is “truly a two-way street,” and arguing that Israel was widely recognized as a military and security powerhouse.
The meeting between the two leaders, likely the last after six years of thorny relations, was held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where Netanyahu is slated to speak Thursday. On Tuesday, Obama told the world body that Israel could not continue occupying Palestinian land.
The senior official said the Israeli leader was willing to meet with either presidential candidate if they request a meeting. So far neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have requested to meet with the prime minister.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.