US President Barack Obama said Monday that tough decisions will have to be made as the deadline nears for completing a framework for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama spoke in a meeting in the Oval Office with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of private talks between the two. He said it is still possible to create two states — one for Israelis and one for Palestinians. But Obama said the task is difficult and requires compromises on all sides.
He commended Netanyahu for engaging in “tough negotiations” with the Palestinians. “It is still possible to create two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine, with people living side by side in peace and security,” Obama said. “But it’s difficult. It requires compromise on all sides.”
For his part, Netanyahu said Israel wants peace with the Palestinians, but is being let down by the Palestinians, who fail to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and relentlessly incite hostility against it.
He also reiterated his insistence that Iran be denied any enrichment capability under a permanent accord with the global powers over its rogue nuclear program. While Obama spoke of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu said the need was to prevent “Iran from acquiring the capacity to make nuclear weapons. I think that goal can be achieved if Iran is prevented from enriching uranium and dismantles fully its military nuclear installations.”
Despite the highly critical stance he demonstrated toward Netanyahu in an interview published Sunday, the US president said that “we do not have a closer friend than Israel.” Their joint appearance began with both men smiling at each other, and Netanyahu nodded his assent frequently during the president’s remarks, including when Obama spoke of the possibility of creating “a state of Palestine.”
Obama nodded notably less, while listening attentively, particularly when Netanyahu said that “Iran calls openly for Israel’s destruction, so I’m sure you’ll appreciate that Israel cannot permit such a state to have the ability to make atomic bombs to achieve that goal.”
Obama said that in addition to the peace talks with the Palestinians, the two planned on discussing “Syria and the need for both of us to address the extremism issue inside Syria.” According to Obama, the heads of state would also discuss Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iran, as well as “the opportunity for both countries to work on counter-terrorism.”
Netanyahu said Israel has been doing its part to pursue peace, but the Palestinians have not.
“Twenty years of peace process were marked by many Israeli steps for peace, but we got suicide bombers and rockets in return,” the prime minister said.
“It’s about time the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state – we have only been there for 4,000 years,” he added.
Netanyahu said the greatest challenge faced by Israel is Iran’s nuclear program. He said he would do “whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state.”
“The people of Israel expect me to stand strong against pressure and for the security of Israel.”
On Iran, Obama affirmed “my absolute commitment that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.”
The two leaders spoke for three hours after the photo op in the Oval Office, and Netanyahu left without comment to reporters, CBS’s Mark Knoller tweeted.
PM Netanyahu has left the WH after nearly 3 hours of talks with Pres Obama. The PM made no comment to reporters on departing.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) March 3, 2014
Netanyahu came to the White House to meet Obama over the future of the peace process with the Palestinians and Western efforts to curb Iran’s rogue nuclear program.
Netanyahu arrived in a large black 4×4 shortly before 1:45 p.m. as temperatures plummeted and a major snowstorm blanketed Washington.
Obama was expected to press Netanyahu to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for extending the negotiations beyond a late April deadline.
Israel and Palestinian negotiators have conducted seven months of US-led direct peace talks, which have made little progress.
Washington is now pushing them to accept a new deadline as set out in the framework proposal.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Washington will demand a partial freeze on construction in isolated settlements outside the major West Bank blocs that Israel hopes to retain in any peace deal.
Upon landing in Washington late Sunday, Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the morass in the peace talks. His comments came hours after Obama was quoted as saying that Washington would be hard-pressed to defend Israel should talks fail.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Obama stressed that time was running out for Israel to achieve a peace deal, and added that he believed Netanyahu had the capacity to rally Israel’s citizens behind an agreement.
But if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach,” Obama said.
“There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” the president said.
In an immediate response on his arrival in the US, Netanyahu vowed to resist pressure: “For us to have an agreement, we must uphold our vital interests. I have proven that I do so, in the face of all pressures and all the turmoil, and I will continue to do so here as well,” he said.