Obama, Netanyahu stress need for peace

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Monday they have not given up on a peace agreement with the Palestinians, despite signs a deal will be impossible to complete in the near future.

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The two leaders met in person for the first time in over a year in an effort to reduce long-simmering tensions that boiled over during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal.

They also sought to make progress on other agenda items, such as the dormant Middle East peace process and a new long-term security agreement.

Before the meeting, Obama told reporters in the Oval Office that he would discuss with Netanyahu “how we can lower the temperature between the Israelis and the Palestinians and how we get back on a path towards peace.”

“I want to make it clear we have not given up on our hope for peace,” Netanyahu said. “I remain committed to … two states for two people.”

The Israeli leader said he hopes for the creation of “a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state of Israel.”

But in the days leading up to Netanyahu’s visit, White House officials said they believe time has run out for Obama to broker a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Press secretary Josh Earnest called Netanyahu’s rhetorical embrace of a peace deal “encouraging” but said it’s “unlikely” that serious talks between the two parties will get underway during Obama’s presidency.

“What’s most important will not be the comments, but the follow through,” Earnest said. “Ultimately for this kind of two-state solution to take root, or for us to at least advance the process in that direction, both sides are going to need to take some steps to build confidence in one another.”

The meeting came against the backdrop of a new wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians that has spurred further doubt about the prospects for a peace agreement.

Netanyahu has accused Palestinian authorities of inciting attacks against Israeli citizens by claiming his government wants to assert greater control over the Temple Mount, a holy site in Jerusalem for both Muslims and Jews.

Palestinians have denied those claims, saying the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank has caused the violence.

"I don’t think anyone should doubt Israel’s determination to defend itself against terrorism and destruction, but neither should anyone doubt Israel’s willingness to make peace with any of its neighbors," Netanyahu said.

While the peace process remains a source of frustration at the White House, Obama and Netanyahu sought to put on a friendly face for the public.

Their body language during the meeting was respectful, with each man looking attentive while the other spoke. They shook hands at the beginning and end of their remarks to reporters.

Obama and Netanyahu have never been close, but their relationship took an especially dark turn earlier this year during the fierce debate over the U.S.-led nuclear agreement with Iran.

Netanyahu spearheaded a vigorous lobbying campaign to kill the deal, which included a controversial speech to Congress urging lawmakers to reject the emerging pact.

The Israeli leader did not inform the White House before he agreed to deliver the speech, infuriating White House officials who believed it was a breach of diplomatic protocol and a swipe at Obama.

Both leaders papered over that dispute on Monday. Obama called it disagreement over a “narrow issue” that would not impede collaboration over curbing Iran’s influence in the region. Netanyahu did not specifically mention the deal at all.

He instead called the meeting a chance “for us to work together to see how we can defend ourselves” against terror threats posed by Iran-backed groups such as Hezbollah.

Both leaders said they planned to discuss a new 10-year security assistance deal building on the current $30 billion agreement, which expires in 2018. Israel is reportedly seeking an increase in aid, but those talks were put on hold during the spat over the Iran deal.

Netanyahu’s visit to Washington is also a chance to mend fences with American liberals who were angered by his campaign to kill the Iran deal.

The Israeli prime minister will speak on Tuesday to the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.

Many Democrats in the nation’s capital grew weary of the spat between Obama and Netanyahu, fearing it opened a partisan division over Israel, which has traditionally enjoyed support from both political parties.

--This report was updated at 2:36 p.m.