WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu exchanged affirmations of the strength of the US-Israel relationship – and of their own – during an Oval Office meeting Tuesday in which they stressed the shared goal of quickly moving forward with the peace process.
“Our relationship is continuing to improve,” said the president.
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In a joint press conference, Obama and Netanyahu avoided any signs of disagreement over settlements, Iran or other controversial issues, while the US president sought to allay Israeli concerns about America’s stance on Israel joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The two men warmly shook hands during their side-by-side press conference, and Netanyahu invited Obama to come to Israel, to which Obama replied, “I’m ready.”
It was Netanyahu’s fifth meeting with Obama in the US. Obama has yet to visit Israel since his election.
Asked whether Obama had pressed Netanyahu to extend a US-sought moratorium on settlement construction, set to expire in September, the former instead praised Israel for having “shown restraint over the last several months that I think has been conducive to the prospects of us getting into direct talks.”
He echoed Netanyahu’s own call to move soon from the current proximity talks to face-to-face negotiations.
“I believe that the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such direct talks, and I commend the prime minister for that,” Obama said. “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace.”
Obama, though, did call for more “confidence-building measures,” including allowing the Palestinian security services “to widen the scope of their responsibilities in the West Bank,” and having the Palestinians further curb incitement.
Netanyahu, for his part, pledged to move forward with “concrete steps” that could be taken “in the coming days and the coming weeks to move the peace process further along in a very robust way.”
In the meantime, Obama expressed appreciation for moves Israel had made to lift the embargo on goods into Gaza, a major topic of discussion between the two leaders Tuesday.
Obama also stressed that “there is no change in US policy” when it comes to the NPT, even though the US signed on to a document at the recent treaty review conference that singled out Israel, a non-signatory to the NPT widely believed to have a nuclear arsenal. The decision was viewed with alarm in Israel, with many worried that the move cleared the way for the US to pressure Israel to sign the treaty.
“We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against us – against it, that Israel has unique security requirements.
It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region,” Obama told reporters. “The United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.”
The words from Obama were seen by Israel as important in tamping down any international expectations that might have developed for changes in Israel’s nuclear policy.
The NPT issue has also been a subject of intense discussions between the countries since the May conference, with Israel receiving assurances on the matter.
The positive appearance between the two leaders Tuesday contrasted significantly with their last meeting, in March, when Netanyahu came to the White House in the evening under a total media blackout. Tuesday’s interaction seemed largely aimed at putting a better face on the relationship.
Both men denied that there had been a rupture in the ties between the two countries or that trust was lacking between the two men.