Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama spoke of hopes for progress and shared goals Monday, but they also downplayed some key differences as the administration began a series of meetings with Mideast leaders aimed at reviving peace talks for the region.
This is Netanyahu's second time around as Israel's prime minister — his new tenure having begun two weeks ago — while Obama is about to complete his fourth month in office. Both campaigned for change in foreign policy, and each will be judged in large measure by how well he handles the other.
As a candidate and as president, Obama has reached out to the Muslim world, prompting some wariness among Israel's citizens and supporters. But in the Oval Office on Monday, the president was effusive in praising his guest. He called their session extraordinarily productive and spoke of the special U.S. relationship with Israel.
"It is a stalwart ally of the United States. We have historical ties, emotional ties," he said.
He also uttered the words that Israelis need to hear from every U.S. president: "I have said from the outset that when it comes to my policies toward Israel and the Middle East, that Israel's security is paramount, and I repeated that to Prime Minister Netanyahu."
"Thank you for your friendship to Israel and your friendship to me," Netanyahu told the president. "You're a great leader — a great leader of the United States, a great leader of the world, a great friend of Israel."
Obama has stated repeatedly that the goal is a two-state solution: Israel and a new Palestinian state living side by side in peace. Netanyahu, a longtime hard-liner, does not use that language, but on Monday, he did offer this:
"If, however, the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, if they fight terror, they educate their children for peace and to a better future, then I think we can come at a substantive solution that allows the two peoples to live side by side in security and peace, and I add prosperity because I'm a great believer in this."
If that happens, he added, "the terminology will take care of itself."
Common ground was easier to find on Iran and what both leaders see as its drive to develop nuclear weapons.
"We don't see closely on this — we see exactly eye to eye on this," Netanyahu said. "We want to move simultaneously and in parallel on two fronts — the front of peace and the front of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities."
In talks with House and Senate leaders Tuesday, Netanyahu is urging opposition to Iran's widening influence in the Middle East, linking the Iran situation with that of a possible Palestinian state. He was also scheduled to meet with a group of Jewish legislators and Defense Secretary Robert Gates as he wraps up his U.S. visit Tuesday.
Next week, Obama will meet with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak at the White House. Days later, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be in Washington.