US President Obama has urged Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to take "tough decisions" in peace talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu said the onus was more on the Palestinian authorities than on his government.
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu's Monday meeting was somewhat overshadowed by developments in Ukraine, with the visiting Israeli premier saying to Obama: "I know you've got a few other pressing matters on your plate."
In brief comments to the press after their White House talks, the two leaders offered contrasting appraisals of the Middle East peace talks, as the US-set April deadline for a deal approaches.
"The timeframe that we have set up for completing these negotiations is coming near and some tough decisions are going to have to be made," Obama told reporters, praising Netanyahu's engagement in the "painstaking" negotiations that resumed in July of last year.
"It's my belief that ultimately it is still possible to create two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine, with people living side-by-side in peace and security. But it's difficult and it requires compromise on all sides," Obama said. Prior to the meeting, Obama had issued a veiled warning to Israel's premier, saying it could prove more difficult for the US to protect its partner from increased international isolation should the talks fail.
Untimely settlement figures
Netanyahu responded by saying that Israel had taken "unprecedented steps" to promote peace over the past 20 years, calling for more compromise from the Palestinian side.
"Israel has been doing its part, I regret to say the Palestinians haven't," Netanyahu said, listing several past concessions and saying Israeli voters "expect me to stand strong against criticism and pressure."
Netanyahu's arrival coincided with new Israeli housing statistics showing that the government began building twice as many settler homes in the West Bank in 2013 than the previous year. Settlement building on territories captured by Israel in 1967 is often highlighted by the Palestinian side as a violation of international law and an obstacle to the current peace process.
As the April deadline nears, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will visit the White House next month.
The negotiations have been led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made nearly a dozen trips to the Middle East over the past year. Kerry mapped out his vision of "the endgame" in a speech to the US' largest pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, on Monday night. Netanyahu was also scheduled to address the AIPAC annual meeting.
The visiting Israeli premier used Monday's meeting to discuss Iran, with Israel skeptical of international efforts to negotiate an end to Tehran's alleged nuclear ambitions.
"The greatest challenge, undoubtedly, is to prevent Iran from acquiring the capacity to make nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said, with Obama in turn pledging his "absolute commitment" on this front.
Netanyahu said on Monday that any future deal with Iran should prevent the country from carrying out any uranium enrichment at all, a tougher condition than the current proposal to limit the extent of enrichment to levels unsuitable for nuclear weapons.
msh/lw (AFP, AP, Reuters)