Obama meets Netanyahu amid tensions over Iran, aide's remarks
President Obama sat down Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in over a year, as the leaders look to ease tensions over the Iran nuclear deal while addressing the fresh burst of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The meeting at the White House came weeks after the administration and other partner nations began moving forward with the Iran deal, despite unsuccessful appeals by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress to stop it. Adding to that tension is a separate controversy over 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.
Over the weekend, Vice President Biden condemned the remarks during an address to a Jewish group in Florida. "There is no excuse, there should be no tolerance for any member or employee of the Israeli administration referring to the president of United States in derogatory terms," Biden said, while adding that nobody can undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship.
At the top of their meeting on Monday, both Obama and Netanyahu stressed the strength of their alliance. "We're with each other in more ways than one," Netanyahu said, as Obama highlighted the "extraordinary bond" between the two countries.
Both also insisted they had not given up on the pursuit of Middle East peace, even as the prospect of an elusive agreement between Israelis and Palestinians appears further out of reach.
Speaking to reporters ahead of their private meeting, Obama said he would seek Netanyahu's thoughts on ways to "lower the temperature" between Israelis and Palestinians and get the parties "back on a path towards peace."
Netanyahu declared, "We have not given up our hope for peace." He emphasized that his preference was for a two-state solution, but gave no ground on the Israelis' long-standing conditions for achieving that outcome.
Monday's meeting comes amid an outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel has accused Palestinian political and religious leaders of inciting the violence, while Palestinians say the violence is due to a lack of hope for gaining independence after years of failed peace efforts.
Even with the low expectations, the fact that Obama and Netanyahu were meeting at all is seen as an important step. While the two leaders have long had a chilly relationship, tensions boiled over earlier this year amid Obama's pursuit of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Netanyahu views Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and argued that the international agreement struck earlier this year leaves Tehran within reach of a bomb. The Israeli leader unsuccessfully lobbied U.S. lawmakers to oppose the deal, even delivering a rare speech to Congress that infuriated the White House.
Obama didn't meet the prime minister when he traveled to Washington to address lawmakers, citing the proximity to Israeli elections that resulted in Netanyahu staying in power. The leaders also did not meet while Netanyahu was in the U.S. in September to speak to the United Nations General Assembly.
Officials in both governments have been discussing a new security agreement that could result in increased U.S. military assistance to Israel.
"We do believe it's very important that in an uncertain security environment, we are signaling our long-term commitment to Israel and its security, and are designing a package that is tailored to the threats and challenges that Israel will be facing over the course of the next decade," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.
U.S. officials said Obama would express his commitment to a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians, even as the White House acknowledges that elusive breakthrough won't occur before Obama leaves office in January 2017.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Silvan Shalom, Netanyahu's designated negotiator with the Palestinians, said in a radio interview that the prime minister would offer a number of confidence-building gestures toward the Palestinians, including easing restrictions on communications, water usage, work permits in Israel and Palestinian development in the West Bank.
A new wave of violence broke out about two months ago, beginning with unrest at a major Jerusalem shrine revered by both Muslims and Jews, and quickly spreading to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza border.