Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Obama on Monday that he is still committed to a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority, a public shift that some Netanyahu supporters described as the necessary price for more U.S. military aid to defend Israel against rising Islamist threats from Iran and others.
In their first meeting since the U.S. signed the Iranian nuclear accord over Israeli objections, Mr. Netanyahu surprised observers with his conciliatory gesture about his willingness to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians.
“I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters in the Oval Office. “I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”
That was a turnabout since March, when Mr. Netanyahu declared in the midst of his re-election campaign that he would never allow a Palestinian state on his watch. His vow infuriated Mr. Obama and prompted the White House to announce that it would “re-evaluate” the U.S. relationship with Israel, including possibly easing U.S. opposition to the Palestinians seeking statehood at the U.N. Security Council.
Mr. Obama tried to gloss over his deep rift with Mr. Netanyahu over the Iranian nuclear deal, calling it “a narrow issue.”
“We don’t have a disagreement on the need to making sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and we don’t have a disagreement about us blunting destabilizing activities in Iran that may be taking place,” Mr. Obama said. “So we’re going to be looking to make sure we find common ground there.”
But some of the challenges facing Israel will be left to the next U.S. president. Obama aides conceded that the prospects of Middle East peace are so remote that more talks with the Palestinian Authority won’t take place before Mr. Obama leaves office.
At the start of their two-hour-plus meeting, Mr. Obama said he was eager to hear Mr. Netanyahu’s ideas for “how we can lower the temperature between Israelis and Palestinians, how we can get back on a path towards peace, and how we can make sure that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are met through a political process, even as we make sure that Israel is able to secure itself.”
Israelis have been gripped by a wave of lethal attacks by Palestinians wielding knives, the latest threat in a Middle East that both leaders described as less stable and more dangerous.
The two leaders also discussed a new U.S. military aid package for Israel, which currently receives about $3 billion per year from Washington. The Israelis want an increase to about $5 billion per year in defense aid, in addition to reportedly seeking 30,000-pound bunker-busting bombs that could be used to destroy Iranian underground nuclear facilities if Tehran violates its promise not to build nuclear weapons.
Some allies of Mr. Netanyahu said his public shift on Palestinian statehood is essentially telling Mr. Obama what he wants to hear so Israel can boost its defense needs against threats from states such as Iran. The nuclear accord is lifting economic sanctions against Tehran; Israel and others fear Iran will use some of its additional cash to fund more terrorist attacks against Israelis.
“Under pressure, Netanyahu will make this type of statement about statehood, especially when he knows there’s no way it can happen, in order to appease President Obama,” said Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “Israel has even a greater need for sophisticated military equipment to protect itself.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the administration’s accord with Tehran “is likely to entrench Iran’s nuclear threshold capabilities while helping subsidize terrorist groups dedicated to Israel’s destruction, like Hezbollah and Hamas.”
“We know that the president’s deal does not even require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Mr. McConnell said. “So I’m sure these leaders had much to discuss. The bonds between our nations are strong. And I hope we can all find ways to strengthen them further, because the threats facing both of our countries are real, and they are worrying.”
Mr. Netanyahu will meet with congressional leaders Tuesday, although he won’t be giving a speech like the one he delivered last spring against the Iranian deal, a move that also frayed relations with Mr. Obama.
White House aides denied that Mr. Obama’s policies, including the nuclear agreement with Iran, have contributed to a more dangerous Middle East. Presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said increased military aid for Israel is “something we would have done whether or not we had succeeded in completing a deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon or not.”
“Our expectation is that Iran will continue to carry out the kinds of destabilizing activities that do pose a pretty direct threat to Israel, but also pose a threat to our interests in the region,” Mr. Earnest said. “The Middle East would be much more dangerous if Iran had a nuclear weapon.”
The White House said Mr. Netanyahu must back up his words with actions for Palestinian statehood.
“This is certainly an opportunity for Prime Minister Netanyahu to put forward some ideas to move this process toward a two-state solution,” Mr. Earnest said. “The best way … for people to assess how genuine those claims are is to see to the degree of which his administration is willing to follow through on those comments.”
Although Mr. Netanyahu is offering to ease restrictions on Palestinians’ communications and development in the West Bank, Israel also has given preliminary approval for its own development in the territory that Palestinians are demanding as part of their future state. Mr. Earnest reiterated the administration’s position that new Israeli settlement construction is counterproductive.
He said of Palestinian leaders, “We’re going to need to see a commitment … to ending violence and ending incitement and demonstrating their commitment to negotiating in good faith.”
Mr. Klein expressed frustration that Mr. Obama didn’t publicly call out Palestinian leaders Monday for the latest wave of violence against Israelis.
“He said nothing about [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas promoting violence and murder of Jews in his speech,” Mr. Klein said. “Especially now, when there’s attacks virtually every day with guns, cars and knives, maiming and murdering Jews, there’s no way a Palestinian state can evolve under these circumstances.”
Mr. Obama did condemn “Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens” without addressing culpability of their leaders.