Correction to This Article
The article mischaracterized a statement made by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu regarding the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu said: "If we resume negotiations, as we plan to do, then I think the Palestinians will have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state." Netanyahu's advisers said that Israel is prepared to begin peace talks with the Palestinians without preconditions.

At White House, Obama and Israel's Netanyahu Differ on Mideast Emphasis

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday outlined the shared goals of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and of achieving a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But within those broad areas of agreement were significant differences in tone and terminology that exposed their divergent approaches toward achieving peace in the Middle East.

Obama has endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the best way to establish peace between it and other Arab nations, only two of which currently recognize the Jewish state. After two hours of talks at the White House, Obama said Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states must do more to achieve regional peace, making clear that "when it comes to my policies towards Israel and the Middle East that Israel's security is paramount."

Netanyahu, who took office in March at the head of a fragile and sharply hawkish governing coalition, declined to endorse Obama's call for a two-state solution to the conflict. He made clear that his interest in checking Iran's nuclear ambitions is far greater than his desire to revive dormant peace negotiations with a divided Palestinian leadership.

Netanyahu said he wanted "to make clear we do not want to govern the Palestinians," but he did not mention a Palestinian state as the ultimate goal of talks.

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian peace negotiator, said in a statement that "calling for negotiations without a clearly defined end-goal offers only the promise of more process, not progress."

For peace talks to begin, Netanyahu said, the Palestinians must first recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and "allow Israel the means to defend itself." That phrase is often used as a coded demand for the Palestinians to relinquish parts of the West Bank to Israel in any final peace agreement.

"We're ready to do our share," Netanyahu said. "We hope the Palestinians will do their share as well."

Obama's meeting with Netanyahu, their first as their nations' leaders, began a weeks-long focus by the new U.S. administration on Middle East diplomacy. Next week Obama will host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, followed by a trip to Egypt, where he will deliver an address to the Islamic world.

Much of the region is watching to see whether Obama, who has promised an early and continual focus on Middle East peace, will depart from the Bush administration's late-inning efforts, which, critics say, yielded few results.

Many Israelis are also seeking early evidence of whether the sometimes abrasive Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, can manage Israel's most important diplomatic relationship by getting along with a popular U.S. president. Their one-on-one meeting yesterday ran half an hour longer than scheduled, which Israeli observers took as a good sign.

Obama has said resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical to regional stability, a more strategic view of the dispute than the Bush administration had. The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and its perceived favoritism toward Israel alienated many in the region.

Despite his hard-line stand, Netanyahu signed an agreement with the Palestinian leadership to share Hebron, a highly contested city in the occupied West Bank, during his earlier tenure as prime minister.

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