WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Monday opened his deepest foray into the Middle East quagmire, telling Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu he must stop Jewish settlements and should grasp a "historic opportunity" to make peace with the Palestinians.
Obama also had pointed words for Iran on a second major Mideast dispute, warning the Iranians they had until year's end to get serious about talks with the world community on curbing their nuclear ambitions. "We're not going to have talks forever," the president said.
Obama and Netanyahu spoke highly of their hopes for progress in the Mideast after a lengthy private meeting in the Israeli's first visit to the White House since Obama became president and Netanyahu began his second stint as prime minister. Yet the new president was firm in insisting the Israelis move toward peace with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu stuck to his stance that Israel cannot negotiate with people who deny its right to exist.
The two leaders found fruitful grounds for agreement on Iran.
Israel is deeply concerned about Iran's perceived attempts to build a nuclear weapon, believing the virulently anti-Israeli regime might naturally target the Jewish state the lies in easy range of Tehran's missile technology.
Beyond that, the Iranians have been a key sponsor of anti-Israeli Islamic militants who refuse — as does Tehran — to accept Israel's existence. Most dangerously, the Iranian-funded and armed Hamas organization currently runs the Gaza Strip, while Hezbollah, the other Iranian proxy, has historically harassed Israel with rocket attacks from Lebanon on the north.
The Bush administration diplomatically bludgeoned Iran over its nuclear efforts but refused to formally engage the Islamic government in Tehran. Obama, deeply concerned that a nuclear-armed Iran could spark an arms race in the Middle East and deepen the threat to Israeli security, has changed course and seeks to engage the Iranians in direct talks.
So far there has been no positive Iranian response. Obama said he assumed the country's leadership was distracted with its presidential election campaign but thought he would be able to gauge Iranian seriousness in the coming months.
"We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there's a good-faith effort to resolve differences," the president said.
Iran insists its nuclear program is intended solely for civilian electricity generation.
With Netanyahu at his side, Obama said he had told the new Israeli leader during more than two-hours of talks that his government must move quickly to resume peace talks with the Palestinians and had insisted negotiations start from a previous agreement on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the prime minister that he has a historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure," Obama said. "That means that all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed to."
Obama told reporters that serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would be possible only if Netanyahu ordered an end to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, land that would make up the Palestinian state along with the Gaza Strip.
"There is a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements; that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward," Obama said, referring to past negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Netanyahu said he was ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians immediately but he also said any agreement depended on their acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. It was not immediately clear in the way he phrased the response whether Netanyahu was demanding that as a precondition for talks.
"There's never been a time when Arabs and Israelis see a common threat the way we see it today," Netanyahu said, speaking of a sense of urgency felt throughout the Arab world about Iran's nuclear program.
The Israeli leader did not respond publicly to Obama's demand on an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and refused again to say he was ready to negotiate a so-called two-state solution to the nearly 60-year dispute with the Palestinians. The plan, endorsed by the United States and other parties pushing for peace between the historic foes, calls for establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
Palestinians offered praise for Obama but expressed disappointment with Netanyahu's remarks.
Netanyahu "did not mention a commitment to a two-state solution, and we need to see American action against this policy," said Nail Abu Redden, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visits the White House on June 28.
Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, issue a similar assessment:
"Mr. Netanyahu failed to mention the two-state solution, signed agreements and the commitment to stop settlement activity. He said he wants the Palestinians to govern themselves. The question to Mr. Netanyahu is, 'How can I govern myself while your occupation continues everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza, and how can I govern myself under your wall, roadblocks and settlement activities?'"
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