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 for a two-and-a-half hour meeting.
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At a press briefing after the meeting, Netanyahu said that he conveyed to Obama Israel's expectations that any international agreement in Syria between will have to "take into account Israel's interests."
Netanyahu reiterated several times that his meeting with Obama was the best meeting between the two leaders to date. He noted that the conciliatory tone that was evident in the statements given to reporters before the meeting continued to characterize the rest of the meeting. According to Netanyahu, even on issues on which they differ, he and the president spoke about how to work together.
Netanyahu also said that Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry briefed him during the meeting about a possible political solution in Syria. He said he told Obama that he has doubts over the possibility of reaching a political agreement in Syria and reuniting the country under some kind of regime.
Netanyahu added he stressed to Obama Israel's red lines: that it would not stand for attacks from Syrian territory, nor would it accept a second Iranian front opening on the Golan Heights. Israel, he said, would act to intercept weapons transfers from Syria to Lebanon.
"We cannot accept an accord in Syria that [allows it to remain] a site from which Iran and its proxies launch attacks on Israel," Netanyahu said. "We will not accept that. If we're is talking about an agreement in Syria, it must include stopping the use of Syrian territory to carry out direct or indirect attacks on Israel."
A large portion of the Netanyahu-Obama meeting dealt with the defense memorandum that will determine the scope of American military aid to Israel from 2017-2027. Netanyahu refused to relate to the sums being discussed, but senior Israeli officials said the Israeli request was around $5 billion annually for the decade.
“We didn’t focus on an amount, but I presented our needs,” Netanyahu said. “The president said he accepts our analysis regarding the regional threats and technological changes. There have been a lot of changes since the last memorandum in 2007. Missiles and precision weaponry have established themselves in the region and created new challenges for Israel.”
Obama and Netanyahu agreed that at the beginning of December, an American team headed by the U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for Israel Yael Lempert will begin the negotiations on the memorandum with a team from Israel’s National Security Council.
“It will take many weeks or months to reach agreements,” said Netanyahu. “There’s a mutual desire to reach an agreement on this issue. I appreciate President Obama’s desire to finish the process during his term. We are advancing the process by two years. It is meant to be completed by 2017 but we will finish it before that. There is a willingness shared by the Israeli government and the Obama administration to try to complete it in a serious, in-depth fashion that takes our needs into account. There are resource constraints on the other side, and we understand that. We started to talk today and the teams will continue.”
Another major topic of discussion was the crisis with the Palestinians and the escalation of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Before their meeting, Netanyahu told Obama that he remained committed to the vision of two states for two peoples and wanted to take practical steps to reduce the tensions with the Palestinians.
“I want to make clear that we have not given up our hope for peace,” Netanyahu said. “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.
“I don’t think anyone should doubt Israel’s determination to defend itself against terror and destructions, but neither should anyone doubt Israel’s willingness to make peace with any of its neighbors that genuinely want to achieve peace with us.”
Netanyahu made those remarks in response to briefings given by some of Obama’s senior aides before the meeting in which they said that Obama did not think it will be possible to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before his term ends in January 2017, and that even restarting negotiations was unlikely. Obama’s advisers have said in recent days that the president would ask Netanyahu what he plans to do in the absence of negotiations to stop the current trend in which Israel seems to be gravitating toward the reality of a binational state.
In his briefing to reporters, he said he planned to meet Tuesday with Kerry to discuss the Palestinian issue. He said he had presented Obama with ideas for confidence-building measures in the West Bank for improving the Palestinians’ situation that had been unanimously approved by the security cabinet. Obama did not ask that settlement construction stop, Netanyahu said.
“The primary aim is to prevent flare-ups in the field,” he said. “You’ve heard the White House statements regarding the chances of reaching a diplomatic agreement in the coming year. The focus of the meeting was how we can calm the area and make it more stable. Preventing flare-ups is an Israeli interest no less than it is an American one.”
He added that he would like to take steps to reduce friction with the Palestinians in the absence of diplomatic negotiations.
“There are things we can do that will increase friction and tension, but there are measures to prevent increasing friction and perhaps reduce it, and these we must take," Netanyahu said. “We are trying to distinguish between the population and the attackers and provocateurs. In this spirit I will advance things. We want to avoid a conflagration. We have no reason to intensify the problem. Our interest is that the escalation doesn’t spread to the entire population.”
Netanyahu said that he and Obama had also discussed the Islamic State’s presence and activities in the Sinai Peninsula. "There is a distinct possibility that the Russian plane [that blew up over the Sinai on October 31] was brought down by a bomb," he said, adding that the Israeli government had given the relevant governments all the intelligence information it had about the incident.