President Barack Obama said Monday it's time he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu get past their "strong disagreement" over the Iran nuclear deal and work toward "blunting destabilizing activities" in Iran that threaten Israel.
The two leaders, joined by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and senior aides, huddled for several hours in the Oval Office in their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year. Both spoke briefly before their closed-door meeting about working together to quell violence in the Palestinian territories, bolstering Israel’s military and combating the Islamic State terror group.
“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. “As I’ve said repeatedly, the security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities. And that has expressed itself not only in words, but in deeds.”
For both Obama and Netanyahu, the meeting was also about politics and public relations.
“The personal relationship is very bad. But it is what it is,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The question now is about the bilateral relationship and what happens after the Iran deal.”
Before they got down to business in private, Netanyahu made a point to thank Obama for “this opportunity to strengthen our friendship, which is strong [and] strengthen our alliance, which is strong.” He gave Obama a pair of vigorous handshakes before journalists — and their cameras — were ushered out of the room.
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Obama was quick to downplay the public spat he and Netanyahu have engaged in for months over the deal the U.S. and other world powers negotiated with Iran to curb its ability to produce a nuclear weapon.
Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, zeroed in on a comment Obama made about that pact as an example of the fence-mending both leaders are trying to achieve.
"We’ll also have a chance to talk about how implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement is going,” Obama said. “It’s no secret that the prime minister and I have had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue, but we don’t have a disagreement on the need to making sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.”
That comment alone showed how Obama, by calling the Iran deal a "narrow issue, was trying to put the era of bad feelings behind him,” said Abrams, now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The high-profile meeting also had a political component, experts said, that could help the eventual Democratic presidential nominee and the party’s congressional candidates.
“It is important for Obama because he’s long argued that his relationship with Israel is deep despite some policy differences. It was important for him to demonstrate that today,” Sachs said, adding Democratic lawmakers and candidates could use the meeting as campaign-trail fodder.
“Israel is becoming a more and more partisan issue,” Sachs continued. “On the Republican side, there is a large slice of support for Israel. But on the Democratic side, there has been more and more tension.”
Abrams said the session, for Democrats, should prove “very useful because if there is an emotional and visible argument between the president of the United States and Israel, then candidates will be forced to take sides — and they won’t want to do that.”
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