US President Barack Obama reportedly pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speed up peace talks with the Palestinians during their private talks in the Oval Office meeting Monday, and urged him to move to serious negotiations on the core issues dividing the two sides.
The Haaretz daily reported that Obama thanked Netanyahu for the steps the prime minister took to restart talks, including the controversial prisoner release that freed Palestinians convicted of involvement in terror attacks. However, the president expressed his concerns about the nine-month window for negotiations closing before progress is made, and argued that the Palestinians had taken difficult steps to enable peace talks.
Obama’s message to Netanyahu followed a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas last week at the UN General Assembly. Abbas complained about the pace of negotiations, and urged the US to take a more active role in the talks.
However, the pace of the talks might not be the most serious issue. The US-brokered peace negotiations are stuck at an impasse due to an Israeli refusal to discuss land-swap and border issues, an Israeli newspaper reported Sunday.
According to an unnamed, senior foreign diplomat with knowledge of the discussions, during the latest round of talks, the Israeli team of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu adviser Yitzhak Molcho made it clear to the Palestinians that Israel intends to retain some of the settlement blocs as part of a final agreement, but refused to name which areas or discuss possible compensation to the Palestinians for the territory to be annexed, Maariv reported.
According to the report, Netanyahu wants a deal under which some settlements will remain under Israel’s jurisdiction but be enclaves within a Palestinian state, a position opposed by Ramallah.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have refused to discuss details of the talks publicly.
The Israeli team also reportedly “refused in principle” the idea of a land-swap deal with a 1:1 ratio, an often-cited possibility in which Israel would transfer to the Palestinians land adjacent to the West Bank, equivalent in size to the settlements that will become part of Israel in a final status agreement, the report said.
According to the source, the talks will falter unless a face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas is brokered by the US administration.
At a J Street conference in Washington, DC, on Sunday, MK Tzachi Hanegbi defended Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution, implying that the prime minister was prepared to compromise on Jerusalem and uproot settlements if PA negotiators ceded their demand for a right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
“I think we will be able to give a good answer, a win-win answer, to almost every issue, including Jerusalem, the settlements — every issue has a compromise that can be relevant to both sides,” said Hanegbi during a panel with other Israeli parliamentarians at the conference. “The issue of the refugees cannot be compromised. It’s either here or there.”
Analysts have suggested that Obama is using cooperation on Iran as a bargaining chip to push forward talks with Palestinians, citing the president’s speech to the United Nations last week.
“Real breakthroughs on these two issues — Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli-Palestinian peace — would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and north Africa,” he said Tuesday.
However, on Tuesday Likud MK Reuven Rivlin told Israel Radio that there was no connection between efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program and negotiations with Palestinians, and said attempts to link the two were “unethical.”
At the Monday meeting, Obama credited American sanctions on Iran with pushing President Hasan Rouhani to seek a nuclear deal in exchange for economic relief. Netanyahu implored Obama to keep the punishing sanctions in place — and tighten them if the Islamic republic advances its nuclear programs.
Netanyahu nevertheless signaled he would not block Obama’s efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear impasse, even as he expressed skepticism about the Iranian government.
“If diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place,” Netanyahu said of the sanctions.
The two men met three days after Obama’s historic phone call with Rouhani, which marked the first direct conversation between a US and Iranian leader in more than three decades. While the election of Rouhani, a moderate-sounding cleric, has been viewed optimistically by the Obama administration, Netanyahu has dismissed the new Iranian leader’s outreach as a “smiley campaign” aimed at buying Tehran more time to pursue a bomb.
Gavriel Fiske contributed to this report.