Thirteen months after their last meeting and following a four-month period during which they have not spoken by phone, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama met on Monday at the White House.
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Senior members of the prime minister delegation said the meeting with Obama ended 45 minutes later than scheduled, and described it as a 'good' meeting.
At the start of the meeting, Netanyahu told Obama he remains committed to the two-state solution, and is interested in taking practical steps to calm tensions with the Palestinians.
"I want to make clear," said Netanyahu, "we haven’t given up on our hope for peace. We will never give up on our hope for peace. I remain committed to the vision of two states for two peoples – a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. I don’t think anybody should doubt Israel's determination to defend itself against terror but also its willingness to make peace with its neighbors."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said after the meeting that Netanyahu's statements about his commitment to a two-state solution are "encouraging," but added that "actions will be important as words."
Netanyahu's statements come after briefings, in which Obama's senior advisers said that the president does not believe an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord can be reached by the time Obama leaves office in January 2017, or that negotiations can be renewed. Obama's advisors said over the past several days that the president was going to ask Netanyahu what he intends to do in the absence of political negotiations, in order to halt the emergence of a bi-national reality in Israel.
Obama used milder words at the start of the meeting, when the two leaders issued statements to the press. He condemned Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli civilians and stressed that Israel has a right and a duty to protect itself.
"I will discuss with the prime minister his thoughts on how we can lower tensions between Israelis and Palestinians," Obama said, "how we can get back on track towards peace and how we can make sure that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are met through a political process that keeps Israel secure."
Netanyahu responded that he wants to discuss with Obama "practical ways to lower tensions, increase stability and move towards peace."
Haaretz reported on Sunday that Netanyahu was going to present to Obama a series of confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians, which would include steps to improve the economic situation in the West Bank, approve infrastructure projects, ease movement restrictions on Palestinians, and approve master plans for Palestinian construction in Area C, which is under Israeli control, and more.
During their press briefings, Netanyahu thanked Obama several times and commended him for the large security assistance he's given Israel during his seven years in the White House. "I want to thank you for your commitment to furthering U.S. assistance to Israel's security," Netanyahu said. "My appreciation and the appreciation of the Israeli people to you for your personal assistance to preserve Israel's qualitative military edge. And for sustaining and strengthening the friendship and the bond between us," he added.
Netanyahu made no mention of the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers, nor did he mention the deep differences between the president and him. For his part, Obama did address the issue, saying that it's "no secret" that Netanyahu and him had "a strong disagreement on this narrow issue." However, Obama added that there was no disagreement between the two leaders over the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons, as well as the need to put a stop to Iran's subversive activities in the region.
One of the main topics slated for the meeting between the two leaders is a memorandum of understanding between Israel and the United States deciding on the size of U.S. military assistance to Israel between 2017 and 2027. About two weeks ago, Netanyahu told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that his goal was to reach agreement with Obama on increasing U.S. military assistance from $3.1 billion a year to “the sum of $4 billion plus.” At the time, Netanyahu added that he did not know if he would manage to achieve such an understanding or not.
At the start of Monday's White House meeting, Obama said that since taking office he made military aid to Israel the U.S.' top foreign policy priority. "And I expressed this not only in words but also in deeds," Obama said. "We had more security cooperation than any administration. We make sure that our ally Israel can not only defend itself but also work with us on security threats."