WASHINGTON — With a display of mutual empathy and support, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama held their first meeting Wednesday since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the summer’s 50-day Israel-Hamas war.
Obama noted that Israel was facing a “a very turbulent neighborhood” and reaffirmed “the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.” Netanyahu praised Obama’s leadership against Islamic State terror, and his firm backing for Israel.
At a brief press appearance before their formal meeting, marked by warm body language, smiles and firm handshakes, Obama said the US was proud of its role in saving Israeli lives via the Iron Dome rocket defense sytem, as rockets from Gaza poured into Israel.
Obama said new efforts were needed to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We have to find ways to change the status quo so that both Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes, and schoolchildren in their schools … but also that we don’t have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well,” Obama said.
Referring to Netanyahu by his nickname “Bibi,” the president said their talks would focus on rebuilding Gaza and paths to Israeli-Palestinian peace. It would also cover the struggle against ISIS, and the Iranian nuclear program.
“It’s challenging, I think, for an Israeli prime minister to have to work so hard during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Obama said. “But I know that the prime minister’s utmost priority is making sure that his country is safe during these difficult times, and we’re glad that the United States can be a partner in that process.”
Netanyahu struck a conciliatory tone before the gaggle of cameras and reporters, thanking Obama for his “unflinching support” of Israel, praising the “strong” US-Israel relationship, and saying he is committed to a two-state solution. That would require, he stressed, however, “mutual recognition” and “rock solid security arrangements on the ground.”
He praised Obama for approving new funding for Iron Dome — “which has saved so many lives” — at the height of the conflict. He also highlighted the “continuous bond of friendship.”
He also repeated his call for Arab involvement in the peace process.
Something was “changing in the Middle East” offering a new “commonality of interest between Israel and leading Arab states, and I think that we should work very hard together to seize on those common interests and build a positive program to advance a more secure, a more prosperous and a more peaceful Middle East. I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples based on mutual recognition and rock solid security arrangements on the ground,” he said. The US and Israel should “think outside the box” and “see how we can recruit the Arab countries to advance this very hopeful agenda.”
Netanyahu, discussing the dangers and opportunities in the Middle East, hailed Obama’s leadership in the battle to defeat ISIS (Islamic State) extremism. “We think everybody should support this,” he said.
He also highlighted the imperative of “preventing Iran becoming a military nuclear power.” Neither should Iran be left as a threshold nuclear power, he said. “Iran seeks a deal that would lift the tough sanctions that you worked so hard to put in place and leave it as a threshold nuclear power. I fervently hope that under your leadership that would not happen,” said Netanyahu.
Obama said he would bring the Israeli leader up to speed “on the progress that has been made with dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.”
Also present at the White House talks were US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, Vice President Joe Biden, Israeli negotiator Itzhak Molho, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and her Israeli counterpart Yossi Cohen.
The meeting ended after approximately two hours.
Both leaders looked relaxed during the appearance, shaking hands between their statements, and with Obama noting that Netanyahu was “no stranger” in the White House.
The image was a far cry from the cold reception many analysts predicted Netanyahu would receive in the White House. Previous meetings between the two had been marked by tense exchanges, as the leaders struggled to bridge gaps on the Palestinian and Iranian issues.
Nonetheless, the relatively short time slot scheduled for the meeting — not much more than an hour, in contrast to previous far lengthier sessions — suggested that neither side expected particularly dramatic discussions.
Netanyahu, who traveled to the White House fresh from his address to the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday, was expected to stress his concern to Obama over a possible US-led international deal with Iran on its nuclear program that might leave Tehran with uranium enrichment capabilities. He was also expected to bring up the issue of jailed spy Jonathan Pollard.
Obama, for his part, was expected to focus in their talks on the failure of US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and paths to a renewal of diplomacy.
The meeting took place amid news that the Palestinian Authority is stepping up its bid for UN approval for a timetable leading to Palestinian statehood. It also coincided with reports that Israel has approved hundreds of new homes in an intended Jewish-Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has long cautioned the US and the international community that Iran is barreling toward a nuclear bomb and using the diplomatic openings as a stalling tactic. The Islamic republic contends its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The Israeli leader arrived in Washington following meetings at the United Nations, where he delivered a blistering speech accusing Hamas of committing war crimes by using Palestinian civilians as human shields during the 50-day Gaza war that ended Aug. 26. His speech was a response to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s assertion that Israel had carried out a “war of genocide” during the Gaza fighting.
Israel launched thousands of airstrikes against Hamas and other terror targets in the dense Gaza Strip, resulting in more than 2,100 Palestinian deaths, the vast majority civilians, according to the United Nations. Israel said 1,000 of the Gaza dead were gunmen. Hamas and other terror groups fired over 4,000 rockets and projectiles at Israel; 72 Israelis were killed.
The civilian death toll in Gaza deeply frustrated US officials and resulted in more biting public condemnations of Israel’s actions than is typical from the Obama administration.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu sought to equate Hamas with the violent Islamic State militants the US is seeking to degrade in Iraq and Syria.
“ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree,” he said, referring to the Islamic State group by one of its acronyms. He added: “When it comes to its ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas.”
Obama and Netanyahu last met in March while the Israelis and Palestinians were still engaged in a US-mediated peace process. The discussions collapsed weeks later.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas appear to have abandoned any hope of reviving peace talks, though each is pressing separate diplomatic initiatives. Netanyahu has called for bringing an alliance of moderate Arab states into the peace process, while Abbas is appealing to the UN Security Council to back Palestinian independence.
Rebecca Shimoni Stoil and AFP contributed to this report.