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Relationship Between Obama And Netanyahu? It's Complicated


As soon as the phone call between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was made public yesterday, the analysis began and it hasn't let up. As it continues today, it's clear the relationship between the leaders is complicated to say the least. This comes as Obama is pushing forward to a nuclear deal with Iran that Netanyahu strongly opposes. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was, in theory, supposed to be a call where President Obama would congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu on his election victory, and he did. But based on Obama administration descriptions, it was more a discussion of the very many areas where the leaders disagree. Leading up to the Israeli election earlier this week, Netanyahu said he wouldn't allow the formation of a Palestinian state. That contradicts the U.S. policy of encouraging a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Then in interviews with NPR and other U.S. media, Netanyahu seemed to walk those remarks back, but the White House isn't convinced, even after the president's call with the prime minister. Here's White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

JOSH EARNEST: Our ally, Israel, has indicated that they're not committed to that approach anymore. And so if that's the case, it means that we need to sort of rethink what our approach is going to be in the United Nations and other areas where we confront this question about how to resolve the differences between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people.

KEITH: The U.S. has long served as a firewall for Israel at the U.N. Security Council as the Palestinians have tried to gain international recognition for statehood. Earnest didn't say that would change necessarily, but even bringing it up has to be taken as a signal to Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the administration is moving ahead with the Iranian nuclear talks Netanyahu considers an existential threat for Israel. The talks are entering a critical stage. Negotiators have set a deadline of the end of March to have a political agreement with Iran in place. President Obama even released a video to mark the occasion of the Iranian New Year.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello. To everyone celebrating Nowruz across the United States and countries around the world - Nowruz Mubarak.

KEITH: But this wasn't your typical Happy Holidays greeting. It was a direct appeal to the Iranian people about the ongoing nuclear talks.


OBAMA: The days and weeks ahead will be critical. Our negotiations have made progress, but gaps remain. And there are people in both our countries and beyond who oppose a diplomatic resolution. My message to you, the people of Iran, is that together we have to speak up for the future we seek.

KEITH: Among the opponents at home - Republicans in Congress, criticizing the president both for his willingness to try and work with Iran and the icy relationship with Netanyahu. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is a potential Republican presidential candidate who went to the Senate floor yesterday to talk about relations with Israel.


SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: And more than anything else, they deserve to be treated with more respect. Not less than the respect this president in this White House is giving the supreme leader of Iran. For he would not dare say the things about the supreme leader of Iran now that he's saying about the prime minister of Israel because he wouldn't want to endanger his peace deal or his arms deal that he's working out with them.

KEITH: Personal and policy disagreements aside, the White House made clear again today the U.S. remains committed to a strong security relationship with Israel. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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