President Obama met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, the first sit-down between the two since the war in Gaza began and the start of a U.S.-led offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The two leaders last met at the White House only seven months ago, but they returned to the Oval Office amid a dramatically changed Middle East. Because of the shifted landscape, few expect any grand gestures between the two men, who have had a fraught relationship.
“We meet at a challenging time,” Obama said before the meeting. “This gives us an opportunity, once again, to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.”
Shortly before the talk, a leftist group in Israel said that preparations are moving ahead to build a new settlement in East Jerusalem that will isolate several Palestinian neighborhoods and, critics say, endanger a two-state solution.
Peace Now said that late last week, the government published an official ad announcing final approval of a plan to build 2,610 units in Givat Hamatos, or Airplane Hill, a neighborhood between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
The neighborhood has been in the planning stages for years. But after the plan was approved in late 2012, the required publication was put on hold. With the new ad, the government can issue tenders so construction can start.
“Givat Hamatos is destructive to the two state solution,” Peace Now said in a statement, noting that “it divides the potential Palestinian state and blocks the possibility to connect the Palestinian neighborhoods in south Jerusalem with the future Palestinian state. Netanyahu continues his policy to destroy the possibility of a two state solution. He is doing so in the West Bank, and he is doing so in East Jerusalem.”
This is not the first time that Israeli settlements have intruded on high-level meetings between Americans and Israelis. In 2010, during a visit by Vice President Biden, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that 1,600 housing units would be built for Jews in East Jerusalem. Biden condemned the construction as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”
Netanyahu’s visit comes on the heels of a fiery speech he made at the United Nations last week, in which he called Hamas and the Islamic State “branches of the same poisonous tree.” The United States, and most other governments, do not share the view that all militant Islamic groups pose the same threat to the West. A White House official said the administration doesn’t think Netanyahu — or anyone else — is suggesting that the United States wage a military campaign against Hamas that is similar to what it is doing against the Islamic State.
“Our position on Hamas is clear. Hamas is a Foreign Terrorist Organization. That said, Israel is respecting a cease-fire with Hamas and we have supported that effort as well,” said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman. “Our focus — and the focus of the international community and our regional partners — is on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL,” she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Netanyahu praised the United States on Wednesday for its campaign against the Islamic State.
“Israel fully supports your effort and your leadership to defeat ISIS,” Netanyahu said. “We think everybody should support this.”
Netanyahu was expected in the private meeting to reprise some of the same themes he brought up in his speech at the United Nations last week, said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and an adviser to Netanyahu.
Iran is at the top of Netanyahu’s agenda. Netanyahu raised concerns Wednesday about the lifting of sanctions against the country and leaving Iran as a “threshold nuclear power.”
“And I firmly hope that under your leadership that will not happen,” he said.
Israel is alarmed by what it views as the potential for a budding relationship between the United States and Iran in the fight against the Islamic State, which now controls a broad swath of territory in Syria and Iraq. The United States is leading nuclear talks with Iran, and a deadline for coming up with a plan is less than two months away. Israel has been issuing dire warnings that Iran cannot be trusted as a leading state sponsor of international terrorism.
“To say that Iran doesn’t practice terrorism is like saying Derek Jeter never played shortstop for the New York Yankees,” Netanyahu said before the United Nations.
The Israelis say there is little reason to differentiate between militant Islamic groups and states such as Iran. But Netanyahu was not expected to spend much time talking with Obama about its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians. After 50 days of war in the Gaza Strip, and with American attention focused on pushing back the Islamic State in Syria, Israel is emboldened to think it can put its issues with the Palestinians on the back shelf for now.
“The picture is clearer” after the war in Gaza, Shoval said. About 2,100 Palestinians were killed, according to the United Nations, and 73 Israelis, most of them soldiers.
“There will be a lot of trouble in the Middle East for many years to come. You may say Israel has an interest in coming to terms with the Palestinians. But it’s not the main issue anymore. It’s secondary,” he said.
Netanyahu thanked the United States for its “unflinching support you gave Israel during our difficult days” during the Gaza war.
Netanyahu was expected to praise Obama for stating in his U.N. speech last week that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the main source of problems in the region. Israel has long argued that. However, Obama also said the status quo is not sustainable and he urged Israelis and Palestinians to keep trying to negotiate a settlement. For the time being, at least, the Israeli government considers the status quo not only sustainable but preferable while the Middle East is so chaotic and unpredictable.
Obama said Wednesday that “we have to find a way to change the status quo so that both Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes. But also that we don’t have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well. And so we’ll discuss extensively both the situation in rebuilding Gaza but also how can we find a more sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Obama and Netanyahu have long had a nettlesome relationship. Some of the tension spilled over this summer amid the Gaza war, even as the United States was supplying more equipment to Israel so it could shoot down rockets directed at it from Gaza. In a phone conversation as the United States was urging another cease-fire, Netanyahu bluntly told senior U.S. officials never to “second guess” him on Hamas.
Israeli government officials also were critical of Secretary of State John F. Kerry as he sought to secure a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, leading the State Department to counter that Kerry was being made the scapegoat of a “misinformation campaign” in Israel.