Obama presses Netanyahu for Israeli-Palestinian progress

At the White House meeting Monday, the Israeli leader emphasized the threat from Iran.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington Monday, May 18, 2009.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to show decreasing daylight between their priorities for Middle East security in their first face-to-face meeting Monday since taking office. But each man stuck to his guns in terms of where Iran fits in his vision.

At the White House, Mr. Obama stressed peace between Israel and Arabs, including the Palestinians, as a way to deal with Iran as a destabilizing force. Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, emphasized the need to focus on Iran as an existential threat to Israel. Yet even if differences remained in their ordering of priorities, the two leaders went out of their way to agree publicly that the two "tracks" of Iran and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can be pursued at the same time.

Obama reiterated his interest in seeking a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions, warning against "artificial" deadlines but adding that any talks could not be "open-ended." He also said that progress would have to be registered by the end of the year for the diplomatic track to deserve more time.

For his part, Netanyahu said he was ready to "resume immediately" negotiations with the Palestinians, though he continued to shun the words "two-state solution," which refers to a new Palestine existing next to Israel. In fact, he threw in for good measure that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu was to continue his Washington visit with a dinner Monday hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. And on Tuesday, he is scheduled to have a full day of meetings with administration officials, members of Congress, and representatives of the American Jewish community. But the White House meeting was the most anticipated part of the visit, with both leaders eager to demonstrate the basis for a solid working relationship.

"We don't see closely, we see exactly eye to eye" on the links between the Iran issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu said, perhaps mindful of a domestic Israeli audience that holds Obama in higher esteem than him, according to polls.

Obama said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – moreover, the Arab-Israeli conflict – poses a serious threat to the region with or without Iran and its nuclear ambitions. But, he added, Iran's capacity for trouble in the region would be much less had the Arabs and Israelis found peace before now.

The president also publicly pressed the Israeli leader, a hard-liner on the objective of talks with the Palestinians, about a fleeting chance for forward movement. "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," he said. Underscoring Israel's earlier commitments to the two-state solution, Obama added, "That means that all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed to."

Netanyahu, according to Middle East analysts, needed a good meeting with Obama for domestic reasons without being seen by his own conservative ranks as having caved to the US leader. "Netanyahu was speaking to his own galleries at the Knesset," the Israeli parliament, says Oded Eran, director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "President Obama was speaking to the rest of the world."

At the same time, Mr. Oded says, Netanyahu can go home "saying, 'I did not give up on any of my principles; I did not [agree to] the two-state solution.' "

Yet the important question coming out of this meeting, some specialists in the US-Israel relationship said, is whether the men established trust for the coming months. What some observers saw of the public appearances left them doubtful.

"I don't know whether that [trust] was achieved at this meeting between these two, but I would suspect it wasn't achieved yet," says Samuel Lewis, who was US ambassador to Israel under Presidents Carter and Reagan and who is now a senior policy adviser to the Israel Policy Forum.

Referring to Obama's mention in his public comments to "obligations that [parties] have previously agreed to," Mr. Lewis says the president made that point "so the public would understand he was not satisfied with what he heard" from Netanyahu in private.

As part of his effort to jump-start Middle East peace talks, Obama meets next week at the White House with both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

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