Obama presses Israel’s Netanyahu on peace talks with Palestinians


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as President Obama speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Monday, March 3, 2014. Obama urged Netanyahu to “seize the moment” to make peace, saying time is running out to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Fearful that time is running out, President Obama pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to accept a U.S.-sponsored framework for final peace talks with the Palestinians, but he acknowledged that both sides would have to make “tough decisions” to reach a compromise.

Obama made a personal appeal to Netanyahu at the White House, offering reassurance that the United States is committed to ensuring Iran does not acquire nuclear arms and signaling that his administration sees the chances for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as rapidly narrowing.

“Tough decisions will have to be made,” Obama told reporters ahead of the Oval Office meeting. “It is still possible to create two states, but it is difficult and requires compromise from both sides.”

The White House thinks this month is a critical moment to advance the peace talks brokered since last summer by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, and Obama’s personal involvement has upped the stakes ahead of a U.S.-imposed April deadline. Obama will play host to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on March 17.

The negotiations are fraught with complexity, however, as Netanyahu has repeatedly emphasized his frustration with U.S.-led talks with Iran over its nuclear program and the administration’s policies toward Syria.

At the White House, Netanyahu vowed that his government would not stand by and allow Iran to develop an atomic weapon that would bring Israel “again to the brink of destruction. I . . . will do whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state.”

On the peace talks, he said, “Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians have not. What we want is peace. Not a piece of paper, but real peace. Mr. President, I think it is about time for the Palestinian people to recognize a state for the Jewish people. In the Middle East, the only peace that can endure is the peace we can defend. The people of Israel expect me to stay strong.”

Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed in July after a three-year hiatus. Kerry has devoted much of his first year as secretary of state to resuming talks and keeping them going, having made 11 trips to the region.

But Israeli leaders were angered by recent remarks from Kerry that he fears Israel would face deepening isolation and boycotts from the international community if the peace talks collapse. Obama reiterated those fears last week in an interview with a Bloomberg View columnist and said he planned to emphasize to Netanyahu that this could represent Israel’s final chance for a lasting deal.

“When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation,” Obama said in the interview, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?”

After his conference with Obama, Netanyahu met with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Capitol Hill. Cantor said the Palestinians must “accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” and “uniformly and aggressively” combat terrorism while confronting, not condoning, “incitement against the Jews.”

Meanwhile, at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering Monday in Washington, Kerry told thousands of delegates that Israel’s security is paramount.

Kerry said the United States is committed to using diplomacy to “resolve the two great questions that most matter to a security for Israel that can never be shaken: preventing a nuclear Iran and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Addressing Israeli skepticism about the wisdom of negotiations with Iran, Kerry said, “This is not about trusting Tehran; this is about testing Iran.”

Although all options remain on the table, diplomacy is the best one for now, Kerry added. The administration has long held that a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, whether by the United States or Israel, should be the last resort.

Kerry said Washington would sign an agreement only if it ensures that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon. He also acknowledged that his frequent trips to Israel to push the peace negotiations leave some people wondering whether he is wasting his time.

“This isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s about reconciling two peoples who want, at long last, to live normal, secure lives in the land of their ancestors.

“I also believe we are at a point in history that requires the United States, as Israel’s closest friend and the world’s preeminent power, to do everything we can to help end this conflict once and for all.”

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