WASHINGTON (AFP) - Israel needs to take tough decisions if peace talks with the Palestinians are to have a future, US President Barack Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.
In a joint address at the White House as a major snowstorm blanketed the city, the two leaders, who have struggled to overcome mutual antipathy, once again found themselves very publicly at odds.
Mr Obama pushed for a decision on the peace process, while Mr Netanyahu insisted Israel had done its part and said Iran is now the most urgent threat. Israel and the Palestinians have been engaged in seven months of direct peace talks which are due to expire at the end of April.
“The timeframe that we have set up for completing these negotiations is coming near and some tough decisions are going to have to be made,” Mr Obama said.
“It’s my belief that ultimately it is still possible to create two states. But it’s difficult and it requires compromise on all sides.” But the Israeli leader hit back, telling the president that Israel had taken “unprecedented steps” to advance peace over the last 20 years, and that the ball was now firmly in the Palestinians’ court.
“Israel has been doing its part, I regret to say the Palestinians haven’t,” he said, noting that in the past two decades, Israel had both frozen settlement construction, uprooted entire settlements and released hundreds of Palestinian “terrorists.”
Mr Netanyahu quickly moved to declare Iran as the number one priority. “The greatest challenge, undoubtedly, is to prevent Iran from acquiring the capacity to make nuclear weapons,” he told Mr Obama, leaning forward in his chair and gesticulating to make the point.
Although his tone was courteous, Netanyahu’s remarks, particularly on the peace process, came across as a lecture to Obama on recent Israeli history. The US leader looked on impassively, nodding almost imperceptibly at several points, resting his clenched jaw on his hand.
While Mr Obama’s remarks were mostly general, listing the topics the two men would discuss, Mr Netanyahu narrowed in on Israeli grievances over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme and the perceived raw deal over the peace process.
In their meeting, which lasted at least two hours, Mr Obama was to push Mr Netanyahu to agree to a framework for future talks put together by US Secretary of State John Kerry to extend the negotiations beyond April.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Washington may demand a partial settlement freeze to try and ensure the Palestinians remain at the negotiating table. It would be Mr Obama’s most significant entry into peacemaking since 2010 when his first attempt at Middle East mediation collapsed after just three weeks in a bitter dispute over settlements.
The as-yet-unpublished framework, which addresses the most nettlesome issues of the conflict – borders, security and the future status of Jerusalem – was central to Netanyahu’s morning meeting with Kerry, a senior Israeli official said.
Analysts say Mr Netanyahu was leaning towards accepting the framework, but so far the Palestinians have rejected any attempt to extend the deadline, denouncing Mr Kerry’s ideas as biased in Israel’s favor and unworkable.
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Ahead of their meeting, Netanyahu vowed he would “insist on Israel’s vital interests” and withstand pressure. But Mr Obama also made clear he meant business in a sharply-worded interview published on Sunday in which he warned that “continued aggressive settlement construction” would expose Israel to further international isolation.
“We have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” he added in remarks which were borne out by figures published Monday which showed construction starts in West Bank settlements were up 123.7 per cent in 2013.
On Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu will address the annual policy conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC, in a speech focusing on Iran. Mr Kerry was also to address the question of Iran in an address to AIPAC on Monday evening.
“This is not about trusting Teheran. This is about testing Teheran,” he was to say in remarks communicated by his office.
“And you can be sure: if Iran fails this test, America will not fail Israel.. But so far, there is no question that tough sanctions and strong diplomacy is already making Israel and America safer.”