President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhite House debates vaccines for air travel Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward MORE and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE were on a mission Monday to show they can get along.
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 contentious debate over the Iranian nuclear deal.
Speaking to a group of reporters in the Oval Office, both leaders struck a deferential pose. They shook hands twice and each flashed a smile, looking attentive as the other spoke.
Obama and Netanyahu sought to highlight areas of common interest, while papering over various disputes that have poisoned their relationship over the past seven years.
The Israeli leader thanked Obama for having his country’s back at a time when violence has spiked in the Middle East.
“We're with each other in more ways than one, and I want to thank you for this opportunity to strengthen our friendship, which is strong, strengthen our alliance, which is strong,” Netanyahu said. “I think it's rooted in shared values. It’s buttressed by shared interests. It’s driven forward by a sense of a shared destiny.”
Obama, for his part, said “we condemn, in the strongest terms, Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens. And I want to repeat, once again, it is my strong belief that Israel has not just the right but the obligation to protect itself.”
Netanyahu and Obama met for about two hours, and their conciliatory tone stood in stark contrast with the rancor that has cast a cloud over the U.S.-Israel relationship over the past year.
The two leaders have never been close, but their relationship took an especially dark turn earlier this year during the fierce debate over the American-led nuclear agreement with Iran.
Netanyahu spearheaded a vigorous lobbying campaign to kill the deal, which included a speech to Congress urging lawmakers to reject the emerging pact.
The White House was not told of the address until Netanyahu had accepted then-Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) invitation, infuriating administration officials who believed it was a breach of diplomatic protocol.
The break left some Democrats fearing a partisan division over Israel, which has traditionally enjoyed support from both political parties.
Obama and Netanyahu did their best to show observers they were ready to move past the Iran dispute.
Obama called it disagreement over a “narrow issue” that would not impede collaboration on countering Tehran’s regional influence. Netanyahu did not specifically mention the deal at all.
Both leaders said they would focus on ways to reduce violence between Israelis and Palestinians, which have recently flared amid a dispute over the Temple Mount, a holy site to both Muslims and Jews.
Most significantly, Obama and Netanyahu insisted they have not given up on a peace agreement with the Palestinians, despite the fact White House officials have virtually ruled out the possibility during the final 14 months of Obama’s presidency.
The commander in chief told reporters 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 that we have not given up our hope for peace,” Netanyahu said. “And I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”
The two leaders also sought to make progress on 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.
Both sides view the pact as critical to combating Iran-backed extremist groups in the region, such as Hezbollah and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Netanyahu’s two-day 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.
The speech has stirred some controversy on the left, particularly among liberals who fear that the think tank is letting itself become a puppet for Netanyahu’s domestic political agenda.
Those concerns were heightened when Netanyahu appointed a new spokesman who has made derisive statements about Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Netanyahu last week suspended the appointment of the spokesman, Ran Baratz. The topic did not come up in the leaders’ statements at the White House.
The Israeli leader was set to appear on friendlier ground Monday night for a speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Asked about the significance of Netanyahu’s visit, press secretary Josh Earnest said “it doesn't mean that they are the best of friends, but it does mean that they are able to work effectively together to advance the interests of the citizens of their countries.”