WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he was not optimistic that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians could be reached with the newly re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm.
Obama said that no one envisioned that the creation of a Palestinian state would happen "overnight", but the goal was to give Palestinians hope for a secure state adjoining Israel.
"It's hard to envision how that happens based on the prime minister's statements," he said, referring to Netanyahu's pre-election declaration that a Palestinian state would not be created during his tenure.
Obama also reiterated his intention to reassess US policy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations after Netanyahu rejected the two-state solution during his campaign.
The president said he would not comment on reports that Israel had spied on closed-door negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, but offered assurances that Israel and other partners in the region have been briefed about progress in the negotiations.
"As a general rule, I don't comment on intelligence matters in a big room full of reporters, and I think I'll continue that tradition," he told the journalists at the briefing.
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But the American president sought to reassure the Israeli public after days of reports on a new divide between him and the Israeli leader, saying that the US would still work to uphold a secure Israel.
"I will continue to do whatever I need to do to make sure that our friends in Israel are safe. That's what I've done since I've been president. And that's not going to stop. The Israeli people need to know that," he said.
"With respect to Israel's relations with the Palestinians, I think it's important to understand that the issue here is not what I believe, but it's what the Palestinians and the parties in the negotiations and the Israeli people believe is possible. That's the most important issue." he added.
"The issue is not a matter of relations between leaders," Obama stressed, noting that he has a "very businesslike relationship" with Netanyahu.
"This can't be reduced to a matter of somehow let's all, you know, hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya.' This is a matter of figuring out how do we get through a real knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and for the region," Obama said.
Netanyahu has sought to walk back comments made before the election campaign that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. Obama told a news conference that even after that "corrective," the prospects of a two-state deal appeared dim.
Since his re-election Netanyahu has tried to row back on his election eve remarks dismissing a two-state solution, long a cornerstone of US peacemaking efforts. However, Obama has said since said the US must re-evaluate its approach to pursuing Mideast peace because of Netanyahu's comments, and has entertained speculation the US will be less willing to come to Israel's defense in the United Nations.
The US has voted against UN resolutions supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, insisting that is a matter to be negotiated in peace talks.
"We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made," Obama's Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Monday to J Street.
Separately, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters the administration was unsure where the Israeli leader stood. Netanyahu has said "diametrically opposing things, so which is his actual policy?" Harf told reporters. "I think we just don't know what to believe at this point."
J Street is a proponent of two states side by side and sharply criticized Netanyahu's reversal on Palestinian statehood along with pre-election remarks accusing leftists from abroad of working to turn out minority Arab Israeli voters to unseat him.
Netanyahu apologized to Arab Israelis on Monday for those comments, which his critics denounced as racist and which drew expressions of concern from the White House.
McDonough also defended the deal world powers are trying to reach to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying it was "realistic and achievable." Earlier in the day Israeli strategic affairs minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters in Paris that Israel believed world powers would reach a "bad deal" on Iran.
Reuters and AP contributed to this report