Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. President Barack Obama during their White House meeting Wednesday that he wants to integrate Arab states in the peace process with the Palestinians. Obama told Netanyahu that the status quo between the two sides, in Gaza and the West Bank, must change in order to advance peace.
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The meeting opened calmly, with both leaders apparently trying to convey positive messages. They thanked each other and lauded the cooperation between the two states.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu is no stranger to the White House," Obama said at the start of the meeting, adding that Netanyahu had been there more than any other foreign leader. "We meet at a challenging time," the U.S. president said. "Once again, we reaffirm the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel and our Iron clad commitment to Israel's security."
Just over an hour was set aside for the meeting between the two – relatively little compared to past meetings. The two leaders were not set to eat lunch together after the meeting, either. Obama's public schedule shows that he is booked for an intimate lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry after Netanyahu leaves the White House.
Senior White House officials said before the meeting that the president is interested in focusing with Netanyahu on the Palestinians. This is despite the fact that Netanyahu declared ahead of the meeting that he wants to focus the talk on Iran. At the start of the meeting, Obama said that the war in Gaza this summer was of great concern to many Americans. He added that the U.S. is proud of the fact it had a part in the developing the Iron Dome missile defense system, that protected many Israelis from rocket fire from the Strip.
"We realize we have to find ways to change the status quo, so that both Israelis feel safe in their homes and also you do not have the tragedy of Palestinian Children being killed as well. We will work on rebuilding Gaza but also finding a more sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians," Obama said.
The U.S. leader added that he would discuss with Netanyahu Iran's nuclear program, and the progress he claims was made in talks on the sidelines of the UNGA this past week. " We will also discuss the progress we made this week in the attempts to deal with Iran's nuclear program which is a high priority for Israel but also for the U.S. and the world," he said.
When it was Netanyahu's turn to talk he opened by expressing gratitude and platitudes for his U.S. counterpart on American aid with Israeli security and the international struggle against the Islamic State. Netanyahu added that the two states share the goal of preventing "Iran from becoming a military nuclear power." He also warned that Iran wants "to lift the tough sanctions and leave it as a threshold nuclear power."
Netanyahu told Obama at the outset of the meeting that along with these threats there are also opportunities due to the fact that Israel and a number of leading Arab countries have common interests they didn't have before.
"I think we need to seize upon those common interests to advance security and peace in the Middle East," he said.
After he avoided expressing his support for a two-state solution or the establishment of a Palestinian state at his UN General Assembly speech Wednesday, at the meeting with Obama he did just that.
"I remain committed to the vision of peace for two states for two peoples based on mutual recognition and rock solid security arrangements. We should make use of the new opportunities think outside of the box and see how we can include the Arab countries to advance this very hopeful agenda," Netanyahu said.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett quickly lashed out at Netanyahu over his remarks at the White House: "Whoever is committed to fighting the Islamic State and Hamas can't give them a state. The idea of a Palestinian state flew out this summer together with the rockets aimed at Ben Gurion Airport, and it would be best to get that straight, and quickly."
Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of Bennett's Habayit Heyehudi party, took issue with Netanyahu's stated commitment to the two state-solution: No official Israeli institution, and certainly not in the government or the Knesset or the Likud, has sanctioned the prime minister's comments on two states for two peoples. This remark does not obligate the State of Israel, and it will never happen."