WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Wednesday the United States will keep working toward Mideast peace despite slim chances for near-term success.
Sitting down with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Obama said the U.S. wants to be helpful in reducing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians which have boiled over into a spate of stabbings and other violence lasting several months. Obama said it was critical for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to "unequivocally condemn" the attacks, fight incitement and pursue dialogue with Israelis.
"Although obviously this is a time at which the prospects of serious peace may seem distant, it's important that we continue to try," Obama said in the Oval Office.
On the agenda for the meeting, which coincided with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, were discussions about renewing a 10-year security agreement that could lead to more U.S. military assistance to Israel. Obama said he also planned to discuss terrorism with Rivlin, whose role in the Israeli government is largely ceremonial.
Obama has lowered expectations for what the U.S. might be able to accomplish in the near term following unsuccessful attempts to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace earlier in his presidency. Hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House last month, Obama spoke only of getting "back on a path toward peace," while Netanyahu said he hadn't given up hope.
Obama had no comment to offer about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has said he plans to meet with Netanyahu this month amid an uproar over his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected Trump's recent statements about Muslims, saying Israel "respects all religions" as he faced demands to cancel the visit.
Rivlin, who has sought to promote co-existence between Israelis and Arabs, offered an implicit rebuke of the GOP front-runner.
"We have no war with Islam," Rivlin said. "We have war against those who are using ideas in order to create extremism and threats toward the whole innocent people of the world."
Later in the afternoon, Obama along with his wife, Michelle, hosted Rivlin for the White House's annual Hanukkah celebration. The Israeli president lit a menorah that was made in his homeland during the 1920s. "May we be inspired to create something beautiful and lasting in this world," Obama said. "May the warmth of family and friends around the world bring comfort and bring us joy."
Reception guests included lawmakers, Jewish leaders and Alan Gross, a Jewish-American released by Cuba in 2014 after five years in captivity.
Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson contributed to this report.