WASHINGTON – Israel’s security remains a top priority of the United States amid a deteriorating security landscape across the Middle East, US President Barack Obama said on Monday, sitting alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office.
Meeting with the Israeli premier for the 16th time since taking office in 2009, and for the first time since the successful brokerage of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran over the summer, Obama said the focus of their discussion would be a future US defense package that will last a decade.
“This is going to be an opportunity for the prime minister and myself to engage in a wide-ranging discussion on some of the most pressing security issues that both our countries face,” Obama said before the meeting began.
“It’s no secret that the security environment in the Middle East has deteriorated in many areas, and as I’ve said repeatedly, the security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities. And that’s expressed itself not only in words, but in deeds.”
The leaders also discussed the recent wave of terrorism across Israel and the West Bank, which has claimed dozens of Israeli and Palestinian casualties in the past two months.
“We condemn in the strongest terms Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens,” Obama added, noting the recent flareup of violence.
“It is my strong belief that Israel has not just the right, but the obligation to protect itself.”
While the president referenced his well-known disagreement with Netanyahu over the nuclear deal, he said that both nations still stand together in their commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu took the opportunity to thank Obama for his commitment to Israel’s security.
“We’re with each other in more ways than one,” Netanyahu said, praising the US-Israel alliance. “I think its rooted in shared values, and its buttressed by shared interests. And its driven forward by a sense of a shared destiny.
“We are obviously tested today by the instability and the insecurity of the Middle East,” he said. “I think this is a tremendously important opportunity for us to work together, to see how we can defend ourselves against this aggression and this terror – how we can role it back. It’s a daunting task.”
The prime minister assured Obama that Israel has not given up its hope for peace, saying that he still wishes to see “two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes a Jewish state.”
But hope is not enough for the Obama administration, now having acknowledged the unlikelihood of achieving a two-state solution before 2017 – or even direct negotiations toward that end.
While continuing to condemn the violence on the ground, Josh Earnest, the US president’s spokesman, said after the meeting that a failure to achieve two states has perpetuated “the kind of instability that has allowed violence to take root.”
Israeli officials said their meeting – which lasted over two hours and ran 45 minutes over schedule – focused on how to build on common ground. But while the US hails the expansion of defense and intelligence cooperation as an example of a strengthening alliance, Israel says the need for greater defense aid is driven primarily by fallout from the American president’s deal with Iran.
Thus, Netanyahu’s government hopes to secure an increase in US aid from the current $3 billion a year to $5b.
There is “no daylight,” Earnest said, on the joint US-Israel commitment to “prevent, or at least mitigate” Iran’s disruptive activities across the region.
Earnest said that in order to assess what Israel’s new military package requires, a careful analysis must be done that looks at how what Israel’s military capacity is and what it needs to combat the new threats in the region.
Officials familiar with the meeting say Obama and Netanyahu agreed to reassess the nature of Washington’s aid package to Israel in light of the region’s increasing threat landscape.
Both sides agreed an American team would come to Israel in December to better understand the country’s new military needs.
It could take weeks after that and possibly months before any conclusion is reached. But their existing security agreement is not due to expire until 2017, providing the administration with ample time to study Israel’s new posture.
The leaders discussed Israel’s redlines with regard to the implementation of the Iran deal. Syria was also on the agenda, including ways to prevent attacks against Israel, Iran’s growing presence there, the transfer of arms from Syria to Lebanon and Islamic State activities on the Golan Heights.
“Iran can’t open a second front on the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said. He added, “We can’t accept an agreement with Syria in which Iran will be allowed to use it was a base to attack Israel,” he said.
“When we talk about a solution for Syria, it has to include a cessation of attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu said.
They also talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but no mention was made of a settlement freeze. Netanyahu thanked Obama for US support with regard to the issue of the Temple Mount.
“It was a very good and constructive meeting,” Netanyahu told reporters. Unlike some past conversations, “there were no arguments or confrontation,” he added.
Vice President Joe Biden, the president’s national security adviser Susan Rice and ambassadors from both nations, Ron Dermer and Dan Shapiro, all participated in the Oval Office meeting.
Netanyahu was later scheduled to meet independently with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Netanyahu is scheduled to address the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Monday night, receiving the think tank’s highest award at a black-tie gala. Offsetting that speech, the prime minister is to address a liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, on Tuesday afternoon.
Several American Jewish organizations took the opportunity of Netanyahu’s visit to push for a new round of direct negotiations with Palestinian leadership. The president of J Street, a group that primarily lobbies for a two-state solution, questioned Netanyahu’s commitment to that goal in a statement released on Monday afternoon.
“As a master communicator, Netanyahu knows how to tell an audience what it wants to hear – and on this visit to Washington he will be speaking to diverse audiences,” said J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami. “But actions always speak louder than words. For example, it is deeply dispiriting to learn that Israel moved to green light some 2,200 new housing units within existing settlements in the West Bank and retroactively legalize two previously unauthorized outposts that had been established without government approval.”
And with an ad in The New York Times, the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace renewed its call for a demilitarized Palestinian state to preempt a demographic crisis for the Jewish state.
“It is past time to acknowledge this truth: The creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state is not a gift to the Palestinians,” said the center’s president, Robert Wexler. “Rather, a two-state solution is the only way to ensure a secure, Jewish and democratic state of Israel.”Tovah Lazaroff and Danielle Ziri contributed to this report.