Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly told Barack Obama on Monday that Israelis expected their leader not to compromise on their security even as the U.S. president sought to reassure him on Iran diplomacy and pressure him on Middle East peace talks.
In White House talks overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, the two leaders tried to avoid any direct clash in a brief appearance before the press but were unable to paper over their differences on a pair of sensitive diplomacy drives that have stoked tensions between Israel and the United States.
Obama assured Netanyahu of his “absolute commitment” to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, despite the Israeli premier’s deep skepticism over U.S.-led efforts to reach an agreement curbing Tehran’s nuclear program.
But Obama also urged Netanyahu to make “tough decisions” to help salvage a U.S.-brokered peace process aimed at reaching a framework agreement with the Palestinians.
“The Israeli people expect me to stand strong against criticism and pressure,” Netanyahu told reporters.
Obama and Netanyahu, who have had strained relations in the past, showed no outright signs of tension in their body language as they sat side-by-side in the Oval Office. But their differences were clear.
With time running out for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, Obama and Netanyahu sparred in public comments in the run-up to their meeting, which came at a critical juncture for the president’s second-term foreign policy agenda.
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 leader used a brief joint appearance to put the onus on the Palestinians to advance prospects for peace and to vow to hold the line on Israel’s security.
In his remarks, Netanyahu recapped decades of conflict with the Palestinians as well as what Israelis see as an existential threat from Iran, the arch-foe of the Jewish state.
“I as the prime minister of Israel will do whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state,” he said.
Obama is seeking room for diplomacy with Iran, while Netanyahu says sanctions on Tehran are being eased prematurely.
At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to persuade Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a framework deal that would enable troubled land-for-peace negotiations to continue beyond an April target date for a final accord.
Abbas is due at the White House on March 17. He has resisted Netanyahu’s demand - repeated during the Oval Office meeting - for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Netanyahu appeared to be pushing back implicitly against Obama’s warning in a Bloomberg View interview, coinciding with his arrival in Washington, of potential “international fallout” for Israel if peace efforts break down and the building of Jewish settlements continues.
Israelis, increasingly concerned about an anti-Israel boycott movement, view such U.S. warnings as an attempt to squeeze out concessions.
Possibly further complicating the talks, an Israeli government report on Monday showed that Israeli construction starts of settler homes had more than doubled last year to 2,534, from 1,133 in 2012.
Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured those areas in the 1967 Middle East war and in 2005, pulled out of the Gaza Strip, now run by Hamas Islamists opposed to Abbas’s peace efforts.