Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Monday. Image Credit: AP

Washington: US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel sought on Monday to move beyond their bitter rupture over the Iran nuclear deal, emphasizing in a lengthy White House meeting the strong bonds between their nations and discussing shared priorities like confronting Iranian misbehaviour, countering terrorism and bolstering Israel’s security.

Obama said it was time to put aside their “strong disagreement” over the Iran deal, which he described as a “narrow” one that had been allowed to eclipse areas of common interest. He said the two sides should push forward to renegotiate a 10-year, multibillion-dollar package of military aid for Israel and to find ways to calm a recent wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Speaking to Israeli reporters after the session, Netanyahu called it “one of the best meetings I’ve had with Obama,” describing it as devoid of tension. “The conversation was in very good spirits and very honest,” he said. “No one hid the disagreements between us. Rather, we focused on how to go forward.”

Privately, the president told the prime minister he would dispatch high-level aides to Israel next month to begin formal discussions on the security agreement, according to senior administration and Israeli officials.

“It was a forward-looking meeting,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail the encounter, a two-and-a-half-hour Oval Office session that was the leaders’ first meeting in more than a year. “There was obviously an awareness of past disagreements, including recent ones, and no attempt to paper over them, but also no attempt to rehash them on either side.”

Obama began the meeting by seeking to minimise his highly public dispute with Netanyahu over the Iran deal, reached in July, which would ease sanctions in exchange for steps to restrain Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“It’s no secret that the prime minister and I have had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue,” Obama said, seated beside Netanyahu. “But we don’t have a disagreement on the need for making sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and we don’t have a disagreement about us blunting destabilising activities in Iran that may be taking place. And so, we’re going to be looking to make sure we find common ground there.”

Instead of arguing over the merits of the Iran deal, as they had previously, the two leaders had a practical conversation about contingency planning should Tehran violate its terms. Netanyahu raised concerns about how quickly Iran might be able to reconstitute its nuclear capabilities after certain terms of the agreement have lapsed.

The meeting was in many ways a return to the cool, transactional manner in which Obama and Netanyahu have long operated. Officials on both sides described it as “businesslike” and “cordial.” The president noted that he had met with the Israeli prime minister as many times as with any other foreign leader - a sign, he said, of the “extraordinary bonds” between their countries.

“It doesn’t mean that they have agreed on every issue, and it doesn’t mean that they are the best of friends,” said Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman. “But it does mean that they are able to work effectively together to advance the interests of the citizens of their countries, but also to advance the shared interest of our alliance.”

Netanyahu, who choreographed his visit in part to mend fences with the Obama administration and Democrats who were alienated by his aggressive lobbying against the nuclear deal, did not mention the accord during a short appearance before reporters at the start of the meeting. He had warm words for the president, saying he shared Obama’s goal of eventually resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians with a two-state solution.

“We’re with each other in more ways than one, and I want to thank you for this opportunity to strengthen our friendship, which is strong, strengthen our alliance, which is strong,” Netanyahu said.

“I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace - we’ll never give up our hope for peace,” Netanyahu added. “And I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”

It was a striking moment after a season of barbed statements and escalating discord that pushed the two leaders’ relationship - never warm - to the chilliest of lows. In March, amid the hostility, the Israeli prime minister declared on the eve of his re-election that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. The president later chided him publicly for the statement, and administration officials continued to criticize him even after he sought to publicly disavow it.

On Monday, the two leaders appeared resigned to their differences on the topic, with Obama administration officials having acknowledged in recent days that the prospects for negotiations on a two-state solution during Obama’s remaining 14 months in office were exceedingly remote.

The president, who has often coupled his denunciation of Palestinian violence against Israelis with strong statements of disapproval for Israel’s retaliation, stopped short of doing so in his meeting with Netanyahu, more pointedly taking his side in the recent bloodshed.

“I want to be very clear that we condemn in the strongest terms Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens,” Obama said. “And I want to repeat once again, it is my strong belief that Israel has not just the right, but the obligation, to protect itself.”

The president said he was eager to discuss with Netanyahu “how we can lower the temperature between Israelis and Palestinians,” and ensure that Palestinian concerns are addressed in a political process.

Still, Obama did raise the issue of Israeli settlement activity with the prime minister, the administration official said, saying that it harmed the prospect for a two-state solution. His broader point, however, was that Israel must take steps to create “positive momentum” toward such a peace agreement, even as talks have little possibility of rekindling.

The leaders spent a substantial amount of time during their private meeting discussing the renewal of the 10-year package of US military assistance to Israel, according to senior administration officials, although they did not discuss how large the package would be, and there was no commitment to bolstering American aid. Israel is said to be seeking $5 billion, a substantial increase from the roughly $3 billion agreement that expires in 2017.

— New York Times News Service