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Obama Says U.S., Israel Face 'Clear, Substantive Challenge'

A significant disagreement between the United States and Israel was on full, public display at the White House on Tuesday.

During a news conference, President Obama said he took Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his word that there would not be a two-state solution in the Middle East as long as he is in power.

If you remember, Netanyahu made waves after he seemed to write off a two-state solution on the eve of parliamentary elections.

In later interviews, he softened that stance. Netanyahu told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Thursday: "What I said was that under the present circumstances, today, it is unachievable. I said that the conditions have to change."

Obama wrote off what he called Netanyahu's "correctives."

"I took him at his word that that's what he meant and I think that a lot of voters inside of Israel understood him to be saying that unequivocally," Obama said at Tuesday's joint news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Even if you accept Netanyahu's clarifications, Obama said, "there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework being established that would lead to a Palestinian state. It's not just my estimation, I think it's hard to envision how that happens based on the prime minister's statements."

Obama said that because of Netanyahu's statements, the U.S. now has to re-evaluate its diplomatic posture on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Obama made it clear that the U.S. will continue to cooperate with Israel when it comes to security and intelligence.

"That continues unabated," he said. "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 is not going to stop."

Obama added: "What we can't do is pretend that there is a possibility of something that is not there. And we can't continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years. That is something that we have to — for the sake of our own credibility — we have to be able to be honest about that."

Obama said that it's also not fair to say this issue came to the surface because of a personal conflict between him and Netanyahu.

The president said he and the prime minister have a "businesslike relationship."

"The issue is not a matter of relations between leaders," Obama said. "The issue is a very clear, substantive challenge. We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel's security, for Palestinians' aspirations and for regional stability. That's our view and that continues to be our view, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach."

Undoubtedly, the nine minutes Obama spent talking about the issue will be picked apart, so we've made a clip and embedded it below if you want listen to the whole thing:

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.