Meeting Obama for the first time since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu said he backed a vision of “two states for two peoples,” but maintained that any Palestinian state must be demilitarized and recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a condition Palestinians have rejected.
Patching up relations could help smooth the way for a new 10-year U.S. military aid package, which Obama told Netanyahu he wanted to get a “head start” on negotiating.
Israel, Washington’s chief Middle East ally, is seeking a record $5 billion a year, according to U.S. congressional sources. A senior Israeli official confirmed that figure and said a U.S. delegation would visit Israel next month to discuss details of an aid package.
Obama and Netanyahu, who have a history of testy White House encounters, showed no outward sign of tension, looking cordial and businesslike as they held their first face-to-face talks in 13 months.
The meeting was clouded by Palestinian stabbing and shooting attacks that have Israelis on edge at a time when Obama has concluded that a peace deal is beyond reach during the final 14 months of his presidency.
Obama condemned the latest wave of Palestinian violence and backed Israel’s right to defend itself, but said he wanted to hear Netanyahu’s ideas for lowering tensions and “how we can make sure that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are met.”
Netanyahu’s recommitment to the two-state solution, the bedrock of U.S. diplomacy on the conflict for decades, could satisfy the Obama administration’s desire that he clarify his position after he appeared to backtrack on his pledge during a hard-fought re-election campaign earlier this year.
“I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace,” Netanyahu told reporters allowed in at the start of talks with Obama.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014. The eruption of violence between the two sides last month has made an end to that bloodshed a more immediate priority.
The Obama-Netanyahu meeting was widely seen as an effort to move beyond differences over how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions over U.S.-led nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
Netanyahu told the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank later that while he and Obama had disagreed over the Iranian nuclear deal, now that it has been negotiated, “we are in agreement that we want to keep Iran’s feet to the fire.”
The Israeli prime minister said he also made clear to Obama that Israel would not be “obliged” by any deal to settle the Syrian civil war that does not prevent Iran from using Syrian territory for direct aggression against Israel or for sending game-changing weapons to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
“The defense of Israel is what concerns me in Syria first and foremost, and on that we’ll continue to act forcefully,” he said.