Obama, Peres Discuss Israeli-Palestinian Peace

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009; 4:05 PM

President Obama's meeting with Shimon Peres this afternoon marked a first step in the new administration's relationship with Israel. But it comes at a time when the two governments disagree sharply over what constitutes the biggest long-term threat to the Jewish state and how best to achieve peace in the region.

Peres, Israel's president, is serving mostly as a scout on this trip to Washington on behalf of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who took office at the end of March and will meet with Obama for the first time on May 18. Israel's presidency is a largely ceremonial post, and Peres, as a former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is his country's most recognizable ambassador.

But he is representing an Israeli government that does not share his views -- nor, more importantly, the Obama administration's -- on how to make peace with the Palestinians.

Peres and Obama agree that the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel -- roughly along the lines of the pre-June1967 borders -- is the best way to preserve Israel's security and character as a Jewish and democratic state.

Netanyahu, who in 1996 defeated Peres in direct elections for prime minister, does not. Skilled in the ways of Washington, the MIT-educated prime minister has declined to explicitly embrace the "two states for two peoples" formula that has guided U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years.

While Obama and Peres largely agree that peace with the Palestinians would secure wider Arab recognition for Israel and improve its long-term security prospects, Netanyahu believes another issue must come first: preventing Iran from achieving the ability to make nuclear weapons. The Obama administration believes peace with the Palestinians would bring the region's Sunni Arab governments more squarely on Israel's side against Shiite Iran, whose ambitions in the Gulf and beyond alarm Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others.

"This president spent time the very first day he worked in the Oval Office on Middle East peace," press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday. "And I think this is the beginning of many steps."

As he was leaving the White House today, Peres talked with reporters about Obama's efforts on Iran, saying Israel should endorse the U.S. policy.

"We should be loyal supporters," Peres said, according to the Reuters news agency. "If it will succeed, it can be the best thing."

In an interview last month, Peres acknowledged that the Obama administration "wants Israel to renew negotiations" with the Palestinians, namely through the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is led by Mahmoud Abbas. The umbrella organization does not include Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip.

"Netanyahu said he wants to have both economic relations and political negotiations," Peres said. "It goes together. He will start it soon. I do believe that Netanyahu has a sense of timing. And the historical watch is occasionally impatient."

But neither Netanyahu nor his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has ever formally endorsed the goal of such talks -- the creation of a Palestinian state in territory Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East War.

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