Seven years and 16 meetings after their first encounter in the Oval Office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama met for likely the last time in their current roles in New York on Wednesday, with Obama – as at that first meeting – expressing concern about the settlements, and Netanyahu professing a desire for peace.
At a brief photo opportunity at Obama’s hotel before the meeting, the US president said he wanted to hear from Netanyahu about the situation inside Israel and the West Bank.
“We do have concerns around settlement activity as well, and our hope is that we can continue to be an effective partner with Israel,” he said.
Noting that he will only be in office for another three months, Obama said, “Our hope will be that in these conversations we get a sense of how Israel sees the next few years, what the opportunities are and what the challenges are, in order to assure that we keep alive the possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of their people.”
A senior White House official, recounting the meeting, said the two men “never papered over their differences.” He said Obama reiterated the profound US concerns about the “corrosive effect” the settlements are having on the prospects of two states.
The official also said Obama raised “the continuance of the settlement activity as it enters the 50th year of occupation,” as well as his fears over a recent “spike” in violence in the conflict.
Obama, in his brief comments, echoed a remark Netanyahu made at the opening of the photo op about the unbreakable bond between their countries, adding that there is a “recognition that the Jewish state of Israel is one of our most important allies.”
He added “it is important for America’s national security to ensure we have a safe and secure Israel, one that can defend itself.”
The prime minister did not directly mention the Palestinians in his brief remarks, though he said that he appreciated the many talks he has had with Obama over the years about challenges facing his country.
“The greatest challenge is of course the unremitting fanaticism,” Netanyahu said.
“The greatest opportunity is to advance peace. That’s a goal that I and the people of Israel will never give up on.
“We’ve been fortunate that in pursuing these two tasks, Israel has no greater friend than the United States of America.”
Netanyahu started off the public comments by thanking Obama “for the extensive security and intelligence cooperation” between the two countries, adding that most people do not understand the “breadth and depth” of that cooperation.
“But I know, and I want to thank you on behalf of all of the people of Israel,” he said.
The Israel-US alliance, he added, “has grown decade after decade, through successive presidents, bipartisan Congress and with the overwhelming support of the American people. It is an unbreakable bond.”
Obama, in reference to the $38 billion, 10-year military aid package signed last week, said this package will allow “some kind of certainty in a moment when there’s enormous uncertainty in the region. It’s a very difficult and dangerous time in the Middle East.”
Though some of the previous meetings between the two were marked by tension that was palpable even in their brief public sessions, this occasion was noticeably cordial, with Netanyahu referring to Obama as “Barack,” joking about his golf game, and inviting him to play the course in Caesarea near his home.
“I want you to know, Barack, that you will always be a welcome guest in Israel,” Netanyahu said. Obama replied that he would visit Israel often after his time in office “because it’s a beautiful country, with beautiful people.”
In his opening remarks, Obama extended his well wishes to former president Shimon Peres.
The meeting came on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting, where Obama spoke on Tuesday, and Netanyahu is scheduled to speak on Thursday.
Among those who joined the meeting from the Israeli side were Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and acting head of the National Security Council Yaakov Nagel. Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador Dan Shapiro were among those on the US team.Michael Wilner in Los Angeles and Reuters contributed to this report.
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