Netanyahu at White House: With clock ticking, Obama reengages in Mideast

A US deadline is fast approaching for reaching a 'framework' agreement in the Middle East, and Obama, before meeting with Netanyahu, said 'tough decisions' are needed from both sides. 

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) delivers remarks to the media next to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) before pre-bipartisan meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington March 3. Netanyahu bluntly told President Obama on Monday that Israelis expected their leader not to compromise on their security even as the president sought to reassure him on Iran diplomacy and pressure him on Middle East peace talks.

A US-imposed April deadline for reaching a “framework” for final negotiation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fast approaching. What does not seem to be getting any closer, however, is agreement from the two parties on a deal Secretary of State John Kerry has been doggedly pressing for throughout his first year on the job.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at the White House Monday as part of a US visit that will take him to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential pro-Israel lobbying organization, and on to California.

President Obama said going into his afternoon meeting with the Israeli leader that it would take “tough decisions” and compromise from both sides if an elusive two-state peace agreement is to be reached. But if Mr. Netanyahu has any compromise in mind, he’s not letting on.

Netanyahu, who came to Washington more interested in focusing on Iran and its nuclear program, pursued a theme on peace talks that he displayed upon landing Monday: It’s the Palestinians who are holding things up.

“Israel has been doing its part and, I regret to say, the Palestinians have not,” he said at the White House. Earlier Netanyahu was more colorful, saying as he arrived Monday “the tango in the Middle East needs at least three” dancers, although “for years there have been [only] two – Israel and the US.”

Secretary Kerry, who has made just shy of a dozen trips to the region over the past year – originally to reach a peace deal within a year, a goal that slipped to the current plan to reach a framework establishing the core areas for reaching a final accord – set the April deadline as a way of forcing some decision-making on talks that have appeared to be making very little headway.

A framework deal would set parameters for settling core issues, including: borders between Israel and a Palestinian state; the status of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and the status of Jerusalem; resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees who lost property as a result of Israel’s creation; and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

A clearer picture of whether or not Kerry’s framework deal is possible could come this month, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House March 17.

The Palestinian leader has shown some flexibility on Israeli security demands: for example indicating that some presence of Israeli security forces inside a Palestinian state along the border with Jordan – a key concern for Israel – could be acceptable for a defined period of time.

But the Palestinians remain opposed to Israel gaining international recognition as a Jewish state – What would that mean for Israel’s Arab citizens, they ask? – and they fear that US acceptance of Israel’s position on refugees would mean the end of Palestinian claims inside Israel.

Obama’s meetings – with Netanyahu Monday and then with Abbas later this month – suggest a new, or perhaps renewed, level of diplomatic engagement. Obama’s past forays into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not gone so well, with Obama confronting a brick wall from Netanyahu: when at the outset of his presidency Obama openly challenged Israel’s settlement expansion policies, and then again when Obama called for negotiations of final borders between two states based largely on pre-1967 lines.

This time Obama is putting Israel’s security requirements front and center. But he also planned to tell Netanyahu that solving the conflict is in Israel’s best interest, US officials said, for reasons ranging from demographic trends – the growth of Israel’s Arab population and the challenges that will eventually pose to Israeli democracy – to signs of growing global impatience with Israel.

Obama gave a hint of his message to Netanyahu in an interview with Bloomberg View published Sunday, in which he warns of a shrinking US ability to protect Israel from the consequences of an unresolved Palestinian conflict.

“If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama said in the interview. The US under Obama has, for example, blocked Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition through the United Nations. But the ability to head off such efforts would be weakened with no negotiations under way, the US argues.

Kerry was set to speak Monday evening to AIPAC – and based on excerpts of his speech that the State Department released earlier in the day, he would press the position that resolution of the conflict is first and foremost good for Israel.

“Some folks have asked why I’m so committed to these negotiations, why I’m so convinced peace is possible. They ask: Why does John Kerry go to Israel so often?” Kerry was slated to tell the conference. “With all due respect,” he was to say, “I think they’re asking the wrong question. This isn’t about me,” he was to say. It’s about Israel’s long-term security, about the US “as Israel’s closest friend and the world’s pre-eminent power” defending that security.

“This is about the dreams of Israelis and the dignity of Palestinians,” Kerry was slated to say.

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