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Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu hail US-Israel security ties in final talks

Published 21/09/2016

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets US President Barack Obama in New York (AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets US President Barack Obama in New York (AP)

US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bid each other farewell with a strident affirmation of security ties between their countries.

The leaders were all smiles as they sat down in New York for what the White House said was likely to be their last meeting before Mr Obama's presidency ends in January.

Mr Obama made only a passing reference to his opposition to the uptick in Israeli settlement construction in occupied lands as reporters were allowed in briefly for the start of the meeting.

"We do have concerns around settlement activity," Mr Obama said, adding that the US wanted to help Israel pursue peace.

In private, Mr Obama was more pointed, senior administration officials said, and raised "profound US concerns" that settlement-building was eroding prospects for peace.

Mr Netanyahu challenged that notion, said one official, adding that the two leaders had not "papered over" their differences.

Mr Netanyahu's ardent opposition to Mr Obama's nuclear deal with Iran - perhaps the biggest irritant in the relationship - did not arise during the meeting, said the officials.

The move by both leaders not to air their differences in public reflected their common understanding that if a breakthrough on Middle East peace is to occur, it will not be while Mr Obama is still president.

Following previous failed attempts to broker peace, the Obama administration has opted against a new major diplomatic push.

That means the focus shifts in the US to Mr Obama's potential successors: Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Both would face similar obstacles to Mr Obama if they sought to pick up where he left off, although Mr Trump has insisted his administration would be anything but business as usual.

Meanwhile, both Russia and France have signalled an interest in taking on a larger role in mediating between Israelis and Palestinians.

Still, Mr Obama has not ruled out the possibility that, in his final months in office, he will seek to influence the future debate by laying out what he sees as the contours of any viable deal.

That could come in the form of a major speech or a US-backed UN Security Council resolution - both moves that would increase pressure on Israel and that Mr Netanyahu would be expected to oppose.

White House officials said Mr Obama was not actively planning such a move but would consider it if it appeared likely to influence the situation positively.

In public, Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu spent most of their time touting a 10-year military assistance deal their countries struck this month worth 38 billion dollars (£29 billion), the largest tranche of military aid the US has ever given another country.

The White House is hoping the unprecedented aid will curb the perception among Israel's supporters that Mr Obama has been insufficiently supportive of Israel's security

"It is a very dangerous and difficult time in the Middle East and we want to make sure that Israel has the full capabilities it needs in order to keep the Israeli people safe," Mr Obama said.

Mr Netanyahu added: "Your influential voice will be heard for many decades, and I know you'll continue to support Israel's right to defend itself and its right to thrive as a Jewish state."

Ties between the two leaders never fully recovered after Mr Netanyahu showed up on Capitol Hill to lobby Congress against Mr Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been dismayed by periodic comments by the Israeli leader suggesting he was less than serious about the two-state solution that has been the basis of all serious peace efforts for decades.

AP

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