WASHINGTON—Minimizing sharp differences, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed their commitment to seeking elusive Middle East peace on Monday, though prospects for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians appear ever further out of reach.
The U.S. and Israeli leaders’ meeting at the White House marked the first time they had talked face-to-face in more than a year. They have long had a frosty relationship, and tensions peaked earlier this year amid Obama’s pursuit of an Iran nuclear deal that Netanyahu vigorously opposed.
Monday’s meeting was an attempt to reset ties for the final year of Obama’s presidency.
In comments to reporters before their private talks, they sidestepped their disagreement on Iran, with Obama calling it a “narrow issue.”
“We don’t have a disagreement on the need to making sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and we don’t have a disagreement about us blunting destabilizing activities in Iran that may be taking place,” Obama said. “So we’re going to be looking to make sure we find common ground there.”
Netanyahu didn’t mention the Iran matter at all in his public comments. But in their two-hour-long private session, Obama and Netanyahu discussed ways to cooperate to ensure Iran lives up to its commitments under the deal, said a senior Obama administration official, who wasn’t authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity.
In public, the leaders emphasized areas of shared interest, including negotiations on a new security arrangement and the goal of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, even as the two sides grapple with fresh outbreaks of violence.
Obama said he was focused on “how we can get back on a path toward peace, and how we can make sure that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are met through a political process, even as we make sure that Israel is able to secure itself.”
Netanyahu declared, “We have not given up our hope for peace.” He reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution, though he gave no ground on the Israelis’ longstanding conditions for achieving that outcome.
The prime minister’s statement followed his apparent backtracking during Israeli elections earlier this year. At the time, U.S. officials said there would be policy ramifications for a Netanyahu shift on statehood, including potentially easing opposition to Palestinians turning to the U.N. Security Council to create a state.
On Monday, however, White House officials said Obama focused more on getting Netanyahu to outline ways to keep confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians to a minimum in the absence of a long-term solution.
“This is certainly an opportunity for Prime Minister Netanyahu to put forward some ideas to move this process toward a two-state solution,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said of the meeting.
Netanyahu was said to be offering a series of confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians, including easing restrictions on communications, water usage and work permits in Israel and on Palestinian development in the West Bank.
However, Israel has given gave preliminary approval for a new settlement project in the West Bank, territory Palestinians are demanding as part of a future state, documents revealed Monday. Most nations, including the U.S., view Israeli settlements there as illegal or illegitimate and hindering efforts for Palestinian statehood.
A new round of violence broke out in the region about two months ago. Israel has accused Palestinian political and religious leaders of inciting the violence, while Palestinians say it’s due to a lack of hope for gaining independence after years of failed peace efforts.
Obama and Netanyahu also discussed the renewal of a 10-year security agreement that could result in increased U.S. military assistance to Israel. The two leaders agreed Monday that a U.S. team will travel to Israel in early December to start discussions on the agreement, officials said. In the immediate aftermath of the nuclear deal, Netanyahu had refused to discuss the security agreement with the U.S.
“The security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities,” Obama said. Netanyahu said he appreciated what Obama has done.
“Israel has shouldered a tremendous defense burden over the years, and we’ve done it with the generous assistance of the United States of America,” the Israeli leader said.
Monday’s meeting was clouded by the controversy following Netanyahu’s appointment of a new spokesman who has spoken derisively about Obama. Ran Baratz, a conservative commentator, has suggested in Facebook posts that Obama is anti-Semitic and Secretary of State John Kerry cannot be taken seriously.
While White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have expressed displeasure over the appointment, Obama was not expected to have brought the matter up in the meeting. Baratz is not on the trip, and Netanyahu has said he will decide his fate after returning to Israel.