JERUSALEM — On the second day of President Obama’s historic trip to Israel, the tension that had marked his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to thaw, even as Mr. Obama called on Israel’s people and leaders to compromise in order to attain peace and security.
During joint public appearances and at a ceremonial dinner, there was not even a hint of uneasiness, as the two leaders exchanged warm smiles and Mr. Netanyahu approvingly gave Mr. Obama a pat on the back after Israeli President Shimon Peres bestowed on him the Medal of Distinction, Israel’s highest civilian honor — a display of appreciation for Mr. Obama’s continued commitment to Israel’s security.
After a two-hour meeting Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu also seemed to play down their differences about the urgency of stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons progress. Mr. Netanyahu previously had said he believed Iran has just a few months before it could produce a nuclear weapon, but this week deferred to Mr. Obama, saying he agreed with the U.S. that it would take Iran about a year to develop a nuclear weapon.
At one point while speaking Thursday to a group of college students at a Jerusalem conference center, Mr. Obama even joked about his rocky relationship with Mr. Netanyahu in the past few years.
“I want to clear something up, just so you know: Any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet,” he said to applause, referring to a satirical Israeli television show. “That’s the only thing that was going on. We just wanted to make sure the writers had good material.”
Over the course of Mr. Obama’s first term, however, Mr. Obama’s relationship with Israel and Mr. Netanyahu were not always so sanguine, with ties straining during a 2011 White House news conference in which the Israeli leader angrily rejected Mr. Obama’s suggestion that Israel should return to its 1967 borders.
The two have since kept any clashes out of the public eye. Mr. Obama over the past year has tried to reassure Israel that the U.S. would always help protect its security while trying to tamp down talk of Israel pre-emptively launching a military strike on Iran, which has vowed to wipe Israel off the map. Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday again threatened to level Israel cities if it were attacked.
With so much at stake, Mr. Obama has walked a delicate line throughout his three-day trip to Israel, challenging both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to uncomfortable compromises he says are necessary to restart peace negotiations.
In separate talks before West Bank Palestinians and Israeli college students that carried echoes of Abraham Lincoln’s call to “think anew and act anew,” Mr. Obama urged both groups Thursday to abandon old ways of thinking and search for new means to reach peace while it was still possible.
While he said he understands the mistrust that the Israeli people have for the Palestinians, he said Israel must stop building settlements on land that the Palestinians claim as their state.
“The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized,” he said. “And put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own.”
Speaking in vague terms, Mr. Obama didn’t call for specific actions by Israel’s government. But, in his most pointed remarks of the speech, he brought up the always contentious issue of defining borders, referring to ongoing construction of Jewish housing on disputed territory as hurting chances for restarting stalled peace talks with Palestinians.
“Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable — that real borders will have to be drawn,” he said.
Earlier in the day, he challenged Palestinian insistence that Israel halt its settlement activity as a precondition to resumption of peace talks.