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Obama, Netanyahu Meet Amid U.S.-Israeli Differences


U.S. President Barack Obama (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Washington.
WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met for more than two hours with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on May 18 to discuss the Middle East peace process and Iran's nuclear program.

While they agreed that Israel and the United States maintain what both men called the "special relationship," it was clear from their public remarks after the meeting that they have sharp differences, too.

Obama’s goal in the Middle East is the same as that of his predecessor, George W. Bush: Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state living peacefully, side by side.

At a press briefing after the meeting, Obama mentioned that goal several times. Netanyahu, though, offered a slightly different version.

"If Israel's security conditions are met and there is recognition of Israel's legitimacy, its permanent legitimacy, then I think we can envision an arrangement where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side in dignity, in security, and in peace," Netanyahu said.

The closest Netanyahu came to mentioning a state was to say that Israel doesn't want to govern the Palestinians, and that they should govern themselves.

Resume Talks Immediately

The so-called "two-state solution" is embraced by what's known as the Middle East Quartet: the European Union, Russia, the UN, and the United States. It was the focus of Bush's Middle East policy and has been maintained by Obama.

We have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That is a difficult issue. I recognize that. But it is an important one, and it has to be addressed.
But Netanyahu, a security hard-liner, has never publicly accepted the two-state solution, though he's never publicly rejected it either.

That doesn't mean he intends to move slowly on negotiations with the Palestinians. He said he wants to resume the talks immediately, and include Israel's Arab neighbors. But he insisted that no solution will be possible unless the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Obama also pressed Netanyahu on Israeli settlements on territory designated for the Palestinians on the West Bank. While Israel has formally agreed to end the practice, it continues. Obama said they must end immediately.

"We have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward," Obama said. "That is a difficult issue. I recognize that. But it is an important one, and it has to be addressed."

Netanyahu had no comment on the matter.

Another difference between the two leaders is how to address Iran. Obama said progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could strengthen Israel and the United States against the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, sees Iran and its nuclear program as a bigger threat than the Palestinian issue.

"Iran openly calls for our destruction, which is unacceptable from any standard. It threatens the moderate Arab regimes in the Middle East. It threatens U.S. interests worldwide," Netanyahu said. "But if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it could give a nuclear umbrella to terrorists, or worse, it could actually give terrorists nuclear weapons. And that would put us all in great peril."

No 'Artificial Deadlines'

A reporter asked Obama how long the United States might spend negotiating with Iran. The president replied that he has been in office for less than four months, and that it would be unreasonable to expect that anyone could resolve 30 years of bad relations so quickly.

Obama also said it would be useless at this stage to set what he called "artificial deadlines" for discerning progress in any talks with Iran. After all, he said, Iran is now in the midst of a presidential campaign, so it's too early to say what Tehran's policy will be until the election on June 12.

Obama said he'd like to start talks with Iran soon after that election, and that the U.S. government should have a fairly good idea of whether they're making progress or not by the end of the year.

"The one thing we are also aware of," Obama added, "is the fact that the history, at least, of negotiations with Iran is that there is a lot of talk, but not always action and follow through. And that is why it is important for us, I think, without having set an artificial deadline, to be mindful of the fact that we are not going to have talks forever."

By the end of this year, Obama said, if there is not progress, the world will know that it was Iran, not the United States, that was responsible.

Official Palestinian reaction to the Obama-Netanyahu meeting was quick. In Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior Abbas aide, was asked about the Obama and Netanyahu comments on the two-state solution.

Rdainah called Obama's comments "encouraging," and Netanyahu's "disappointing."

Abbas will be meeting with Obama at the White House on June 28.