WASHINGTON, DC – President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday took pains to find areas of agreement in their first meeting since the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, which dragged relations between their governments to their lowest point in decades.
The two leaders met at the White House for the first time in more than a year and appeared before the cameras without exhibiting any of the mutual frustration or political and ideological discomfort that has been impossible to miss in several previous encounters. After their sharp disagreement over the deal between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program, both men appeared ready to find common ground.
Obama backed Netanyahu in the latest crisis facing Israel, speaking out against recent attacks by Palestinians on Israeli civilians that have sparked fears of a new uprising, or intifada, in the Palestinian territories. He said that the Netanyahu government had a right and an obligation to defend its people.
“I want to be very clear that we condemn, in the strongest terms, Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens,” Obama told reporters, with Netanyahu at his side, at the start of the talks in the Oval Office.
The Israeli leader, meanwhile, went out of his way to say that he had not given up hope for a final settlement with the Palestinians, after two failed peace initiatives by the Obama administration.
“We’ll never give up our hope for peace. And I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said. Last year, the Prime Minister angered the White House by distancing himself from the pursuit of a two-state solution during his re-election campaign.
The President did acknowledge his public clashes with Netanyahu over the Iran nuclear deal — which the Israeli leader has branded a historic mistake — but emphasized where they agree on the strategically crucial concern.
“It is no secret that the Prime Minister and I have had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue, but we don’t have a disagreement on the need to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and we don’t have a disagreement about the importance of us blunting destabilizing activities that Iran may be taking.”
Netanyahu, who has previously used Oval Office appearances with Obama to argue that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, did not even refer to the nuclear deal in his remarks but put the threat Israel feels from Iran in the context of its support for anti-Israel terror groups.
“With the savagery of ISIS, with the aggression in terror by Iran’s proxies, and by Iran itself … the combination of turbulence has now displaced millions of people, has butchered hundreds of thousands, and we don’t know what will transpire,” Netanyahu said.
Obama himself stressed the importance of Israel’s security, noting that he has “repeatedly” said that protecting Israel was one of his top foreign policy priorities. He also referred to their shared concerns about the “chaotic” situation in Syria.
Netanyahu, connecting the violence in the region with the threat from terrorist groups faced by both Israel and the United States, said in offering condolences over the deaths of several Americans in an attack Monday at a training center in Jordan: “We are with you. We are with each other in more ways than one.”
Despite his best efforts, which included an address to Congress in March that outraged the administration, Netanyahu was unable to stiffen or subvert the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
And the White House has now admitted publicly that after two failed attempts to broker a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the differences between the two sides are so stark that there is little hope of a deal before Obama leaves office.
At a speech at the annual U.N. General Assembly last month, Netanyahu lashed out at the Iran deal but implicitly made it clear that he understood the pact would now go into force, in what appeared to be a partial olive branch to the White House.
But the run-up to the visit was not without its drama.
Last week, Netanyahu was forced to distance himself from his newly appointed head of public diplomacy after the discovery that the aide, Ran Baratz, suggested Obama was an anti-Semite in a March Facebook post.
American officials sought to downplay the effect the language would have on Netanyahu’s visit and said it was the prerogative of the Israeli government to determine who serves in official posts