Warm words as Obama and Israel's Netanyahu put aside rift

US President Barack Obama meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York Sept 21, 2016.
US President Barack Obama meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York Sept 21, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put aside past differences on Wednesday (Sept 21) in their first meeting since the United States promised its ally a US$38 billion (S$51 billion) military aid package.

The pair's relationship has often been frosty, but they exchanged warm words as they met for what may be the last time before Obama leaves office in January.

Netanyahu complimented his host on "what I hear is a terrific golf game," and invited Obama to visit Israel after leaving the presidency to play a round.

"I want you to know Barack that you will always be a welcome guest in Israel," Netanyahu said.

"We'll set up a tee time," Obama joked.

Netanyahu's government was an angry opponent of Obama's outreach to Iran, which last year delivered an accord to halt Teheran's ambition to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief.

Washington, meanwhile, has criticised Israel's ongoing and accelerating building of settler homes on occupied Palestinian land, arguing that this could put hopes of a negotiated settlement to the dispute beyond reach.

But both sides still recognise the other as a close ally, and Obama's offer of US$38 billion over 10 years is the biggest military assistance pact in US history.

"It allows the Israelis to have some kind of certainty in a moment when there's enormous uncertainty in the region. It's a very difficult and dangerous time in the Middle East," Obama said.

"It is important for America's national security to ensure we have a safe and secure Israel, one that can defend itself."

Netanyahu also celebrated the "unbreakable bond," saying: "Our alliance has grown decade after decade, through successive presidents, bipartisan Congress and with the overwhelming support of the American people."

But the disagreements between the men were not entirely absent. As a smiling Obama noted that his guest "has always been candid with us."

"We do have concerns around settlement activity as well, and our hope is that we can continue to be an effective partner with Israel," Obama said.

Obama and Netanyahu came to power at the same time in 2009 and have had several spats over the years.

Earlier this year, for example, the White House learned from news reports that the Israeli leader had cancelled a visit and made little effort to hide its annoyance.

And in March 2015 during a re-election battle Netanyahu defied decades of US Middle East policy by rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state, only to reverse his own position a few days later once he was back in office.