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Netanyahu and Obama meet: harmonious picture, blunt disagreement

A day after Obama's Middle East policy address, Netanyahu tells the president that Israel 'cannot go back to the 1967 lines.' In their 'prolonged' conversation, the leaders sought points of agreement.

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Among the perils Obama cited is Iran, which sits near the top of Netanyahu’s list of enemies of the Jewish state. Obama said the two discussed the “hypocrisy” of Iranian officials lauding the Arab pro-democracy movements even as Iran violently represses forces for political change at home.

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While the two leaders appeared to be largely in-tune on Iran, they diverged in their approaches to Hamas, the radical Palestinian organization that has just reached a political accord with the Fatah party in power in the West Bank.

Obama, as he had in his speech the day before, said the Palestinians have “very difficult questions to answer about the agreement between Fatah and Hamas.” Saying Hamas as it presents itself “is not a partner for a … peace process,” the president said Palestinians “will have to explain” how they expect to proceed with peace talks even as they plan to share governing with a group that officially rejects Israel’s right to exist.

Netanyahu was more categorical still, saying Israel would never sit down with any Palestinian government that includes the extremist Islamists. “Israel cannot negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas,” he said, before concluding that the organization ruling the Gaza Strip is “the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda.”

Both Obama and Netanyahu will address the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference in Washington Sunday. Netanyahu then speaks Tuesday to a joint session of Congress.

Despite the hearty handshakes and public rift-repairing, the two leaders nevertheless demonstrated differing perceptions of the tumult in the Middle East. While Obama preferred to refer to a time of “opportunity,” Netanyahu said he would not permit a “time of extraordinary instability in the Middle East” to “jeopardize Israel’s survival.”

On the other end of the spectrum from AIPAC, other groups calling themselves both “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” – like the J Street organization – are promoting the idea that the real “existential threat” to Israel’s survival is resistance like Netanyahu’s to moving forward on a two-state solution.

The next few days are likely to demonstrate to Netanyahu whether either of these two visions resonates today in America.

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