Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that he would never compromise on Israel’s security even as US President Barack Obama sought to reassure him on Iran nuclear diplomacy and pressure him on Middle East peace talks.
In a White House meeting overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, the two leaders avoided any direct clash during a brief press appearance, but were unable to paper over differences on a pair of sensitive diplomatic drives that have stoked tensions between them.
Obama assured Netanyahu of his “absolute commitment” to preventing Iran from developing atomic weapons, despite the Israeli leader’s deep skepticism over US-led efforts to reach a final international deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
However, warning that time was running out, Obama also urged Netanyahu to make “tough decisions” to help salvage a faltering US-brokered peace process aimed at reaching a framework agreement with the Palestinians and extending talks beyond a target date next month for an elusive final accord.
“The Israeli people expect me to stand strong against criticism and pressure,” Netanyahu said.
Obama and Netanyahu, who have had strained relations in the past, showed no outright tension as they sat side-by-side in the Oval Office. Both were cordial and businesslike, but their differences were clear, and when the talks ended after nearly three hours there was no immediate sign of progress.
Netanyahu arrived in Washington to a veiled warning from Obama that it would be harder to protect Israel against efforts to isolate it internationally if peace efforts failed.
The Israeli prime minister used their brief joint appearance to put the onus on the Palestinians to advance prospects for peace and also to vow to hold the line on what he sees as Israel’s security imperative.
In his remarks, Netanyahu offered Obama what was essentially a history lesson covering the past 20 years of conflict with the Palestinians as well as what Israelis see as an existential threat from Iran.
“Iran calls openly for Israel’s destruction, so I’m sure you’ll appreciate that Israel cannot permit such a state to have the ability to make atomic bombs to achieve that goal,” Netanyahu said. “And I, as the prime minister of Israel, will do whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state.”
Obama is seeking room for diplomacy with Iran, while Netanyahu, who has stoked US concern in the past with threats of unilateral strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites, has complained that sanctions on Iran are being eased prematurely.
The meeting with Netanyahu marked a new direct foray into Middle East peacemaking by Obama, whose first-term efforts ended in failure.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who seeks Palestinian statehood, is due at the White House on March 17.