President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and key members of their staff met for approximately two hours in the Oval office earlier today to discuss the situation between Israel and Gaza, Iran Nuclear negotiations, and United States’ offensive against the terrorist organization, the Islamic State (IS).
Obama and Netanyahu made brief remarks to the press pool prior to their meeting, but did not take questions.
Speaking first, President Obama thanked Netanyahu – who came to Washington, D.C. following his address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week – for his visit to the White House.
In his remarks, Obama reaffirmed the “unbreakable bond” and strong “commitment” between the United States and Israel while acknowledging the additional challenges Israel has faces since Netanyahu’s last visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last March.
“Throughout the summer, obviously all of us were deeply concerned about the situation in Gaza. I think the American people should be very proud of the contributions that we made to the Iron Dome program to protect the lives of Israelis at a time when rockets were pouring into Israel on a regular basis,” Obama said, according to a White House transcript.
While empathizing with the dangers faced by Israeli citizens from indiscriminate Hamas rocket fire, he also expressed empathy for the Palestinians in Gaza, who according to some reports, suffered heavy casualties, and reiterated his hope for a lasting solution.
“I think we also recognize that we have to find ways to change the status quo so that both Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes and schoolchildren in their schools from the possibility of rocket fire, but also that we don’t have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well,” Obama said. “And so we’ll discuss extensively both the situation of rebuilding Gaza but also how can we find a more sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Netanyahu responded by thanking the president for his support for aiding Israel’s security, specifically for America’s assistance with Israel’s successful Iron Dome missile defense system, that includes an additional $225 million in emergency funding to resupply Israel’s stock of missiles used by the system. The system, said Netanyahu, “has saved so many lives, [and] saved many lives across the border.”
He expressed his support for America’s military actions against the jihadi terrorist organization, the Islamic State (IS, also known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, ISIL) – a group he has recently compared to Hamas, despite disapproval from the United States.
Yet, Netanyahu was clearly more concerned in speaking to the president about nuclear negotiations with Iran, which recently went into its final phase of negotiations before its deadline on Nov. 24.
“…[E]ven more critical is our shared goal of preventing Iran from becoming a military nuclear power,” said Netanyahu. “As you know, Mr. President, Iran seeks a deal that would lift the tough sanctions that you’ve worked so hard to put in place, and leave it as a threshold nuclear power. I fervently hope that under your leadership that would not happen.”
Details about how much of its nuclear capabilities the United States and its partners in the talks would allow Iran to keep as part of a final deal, has been one of the main points of friction in the relationship between Israeli and American officials.
Though State Department officials indicate that under a final deal Iran would be able to keep some uranium enrichment capabilities for civilian applications, Israel has argued that such an arrangement should be unacceptable and would allow Iran to revert to high enrichment capabilities for military purposes in mere weeks or months – threatening stability in the region.
Perception that the United States is diplomatically edging toward Iran has also led to concern among many of America’s Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who are concerned about the Iranian regime’s hegemonic regional ambitions. In response, they have grown closer to Israel diplomatically over the past year, and have held private meetings with Israeli officials.
“I think that there are opportunities,” Netanyahu said. “And the opportunities, as you just expressed, is something that is changing in the Middle East, because out of the new situation, there emerges a commonality of interests between Israel and leading Arab states. And I think that we should work very hard together to seize on those common interests and build a positive program to advance a more secure, more prosperous and a more peaceful Middle East.”
According to White House press pool reports, other United States officials at the meeting included Secretary of State John Kerry; National Security Adviser Susan Rice; and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf Region Philip Gordon. Netanyahu’s delegation included Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and national security advisor to the prime minister, Yossi Cohen.
The meeting lasted longer than was previously scheduled, with Netanyahu leaving the White House at 1:26 p.m., cutting into Obama’s previously scheduled 1 p.m. lunch with Biden. The prime minister left in a hurry and did not respond to questions shouted by the press about whether anything could be “read into” the meeting’s unexpected extension.
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro
JNS.org contributed to this story.