President Barack Obama on Tuesday praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a man who "wants peace" and is "willing to take risks for peace."
He did so following a White House meeting five weeks after the May 31 raid on the Mavi Marmara Gaza aid convoy, in which Israeli forces murdered eight Turkish activists and a dual Turkish-US national. The White House meeting was also on the eve of another round of Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank.
On the day of the meeting, a report by the human rights group B'Tselem said that Jewish settlements with 300,000 people now control more than 42 percent of all land in the West Bank, including 21 percent of all privately owned Palestinian land.
In March, Obama had made a point of refusing to hold a press conference with Netanyahu after Israel announced the building of 1,600 more Jewish homes while Vice President Joseph Biden was visiting Jerusalem. A "partial freeze" on further building runs out in September, and Israel has made clear it intends further construction.
Netanyahu has also refused to extend an apology to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara raid, and has rejected any international inquiry. With Washington's support, Israel is holding its own inquiry, headed by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice. The Israeli investigative committee does not even rise to the level of a state commission of inquiry.
Despite tensions that led to a temporary souring of US-Israel relations, Obama has again made clear the essential continuity of Middle East policy with the Republican Bush administration and underscored the bi-partisan character of US support for Israel. Obama described the relationship between the US and Israel as "unbreakable" and enduring. "It encompasses our national security interests, our strategic interests," he said, and has "grown closer and closer as time goes on."
Obama went to extraordinary lengths in his efforts to rehabilitate Netanyahu and Israel in the face of popular anger internationally over its blockade of the Gaza Strip and the suffering this inflicts on the Palestinians. He said nothing about the continued construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and did not urge an extension to the partial freeze.
Instead, he hailed the partial lifting of the Gaza blockade to allow in a limited number of consumer goods in the aftermath of Mavi Marmara as an example of how Israel has "shown restraint over the last several months that I think has been conducive to the prospects of us getting into direct talks."
He rebutted press questions over his previous snub of Netanyahu. "The premise to your question was wrong, and I entirely disagree with it," Haaretz reported Obama as saying. "If you look at every public statement that I've made over the last year-and-a-half, it has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel; that our commitment to Israel's security has been unwavering. In fact, there aren't any concrete policies that you could point to that would contradict that."
He added, "I trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president. He is dealing with a very complex situation in a very tough neighborhood."
The Israeli press noted in particular the significance of Obama's defense of Israel's nuclear deterrent. Obama rejected any singling out of Israel over its undeclared nuclear program as a threat to the 2012 Middle East regional nuclear conference.
A White House statement explained, "The president emphasized that the conference will only take place if all countries feel confident that they can attend, and that any efforts to single out Israel will make the prospects of convening such a conference unlikely."
In an extraordinary Freudian slip, Obama also told reporters, "We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it's in, and the threats that are leveled against us--against it, that Israel has unique security requirements. It's got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that's why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel's security." [Emphasis added]
YNet reported, "Israeli officials said no other American president has ever made such a clear statement regarding Israel's nuclear ambiguity," while Haaretz correspondent Natasha Mozgovaya called his statement, "The real treat" for Israel.
Obama's glowing tribute to Netanyahu and fence-mending with Israel are motivated in the first instance by his desire to ensure Israeli collaboration against Iran, with both leaders stating they had discussed efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear intentions following the imposition of additional sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.
Just hours ahead of Obama's meeting with Netanyahu, during a visit to Finland, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that "if Iranians gain nuclear capability, we will see a crazy nuclear arms race in the whole Middle East with consequences I don't even want to think about." This, he said, "is the biggest threat to the Gulf countries, it's the biggest threat to the Middle East."
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