WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged U.S. Jews on Tuesday to unite behind Israel after rifts caused by the Iran nuclear talks and later pressed for bipartisan support for the country at a liberal think tank.
A day after a fence-mending White House meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Netanyahu told an assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America that the past year was one of high diplomatic stakes but it was important to stick together now that a U.S.-backed deal had been reached with Iran.
“No matter what disagreements there have been within the Jewish community, maintaining the unity of our people is of paramount importance,” the Israeli leader said.
“Now more than ever, we must work together to unite the Jewish people and secure the Jewish state,” he added.
Netanyahu later made an unusual appearance at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank with ties to both the Obama and Clinton administrations.
“I came here ... because I think it’s vital to understand how important it is for me that Israel remain an issue of bipartisan consensus,” Netanyahu, leader of the conservative Likud party, told the audience.
A group of pro-Palestinian protesters picketed outside the building where he spoke, and Netanyahu acknowledged his visit had been “a source of some controversy.”
Netanyahu reiterated his view that a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unlikely while he is in office. He cited the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and accept Israeli security conditions.
His comments during Israel’s election campaign in March that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch raised concerns that he was backing away from a commitment to negotiate Palestinian statehood on land Israel occupied in a 1967 war.
Responding to questions about the collapsed peace process, Netanyahu said a negotiated peace deal would be better than unilateral steps by Israel to impose a solution to the conflict. But he indicated a unilateral approach might be possible under the right conditions.
“Unilateralism ... I suppose that’s possible, too, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria and that would also require, I think, a broader international understanding than exists now,” Netanyahu said.
At both of his stops, the Israeli leader welcomed Obama’s commitment to Israel’s defense. He told the Jewish Federations that his meeting with Obama at the White House on Monday was “very good.”
The two leaders have had a history of testy White House encounters, especially during Obama’s effort to negotiate the nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu opposed. Monday’s visit was aimed at moving beyond that dispute.
Patching up relations could help smooth the way for a new 10-year U.S. military aid package, which Obama told Netanyahu he wanted to get a “head start” on negotiating.
Israel, Washington’s chief Middle East ally, is seeking a record $5 billion a year, according to U.S. congressional sources. A senior Israeli official confirmed that figure and said a U.S. delegation would visit Israel next month to discuss details of an aid package.
“I deeply appreciate his commitment to bolster Israel’s security at a time when the Middle East is becoming more dangerous than ever,” Netanyahu told the Jewish Federations.
He also sought to address the concerns of American Jews, most of whom are not Orthodox, about the hold that Orthodox rabbis have in Israel over issues such as conversion and marriage.
He said Conservative and Reform Jews would always have a home in Israel and that he had set up a government panel to address their religious rights and for the first time, fund their congregations.
Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and David Alexander; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Peter Cooney