With time running out for a framework Israeli-Palestinian deal to
salvage a troubled U.S.-brokered peace process, Obama and Netanyahu
sparred in public comments in the run-up to a meeting that will also
focus on Iran's nuclear program.
Netanyahu arrived in Washington to a veiled warning from Obama that
he would tell the Israeli leader the United States would find it
harder to defend Israel against efforts to isolate it
internationally if peace efforts failed.
Boarding his flight to the U.S. capital, Netanyahu, who has had a
strained relationship with Obama, said that Israel knew how to
resist pressure and that he intended to stand firm on what he termed
his country's "vital interests."
Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to persuade Netanyahu
and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a framework deal
that would enable troubled land-for-peace negotiations to continue
beyond an April target date for a final accord. Abbas is due at the
White House on March 17.
"When I have a conversation with Bibi, that's the essence of my
conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister,
then who? How does this get resolved?," Obama, using Netanyahu's
nickname and borrowing from the Jewish rabbinical sage Hillel, said
in an interview with Bloomberg View.
Palestinians seek to establish a state in the occupied West Bank and
the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured
those areas in the 1967 Middle East war and in 2005 pulled out of
the Gaza Strip, now run by Hamas Islamist opposed to Abbas's peace
Israeli officials say the ball is in Abbas's court, noting his
refusal so far to agree to a key Netanyahu demand: Palestinian
recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Netanyahu is likely to repeat that condition in a policy speech on
Tuesday to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, a traditional podium
for some of his most strident speeches.
Palestinians, who point to Israeli settlement-building in occupied
territory as an obstacle to peace, say they have already recognized
the state of Israel, through official declarations and interim peace
"We are working very close, very intensely with Kerry to try to make
this process work," a senior Israeli official said.
The official declined to go into detail about the negotiations,
which have been held under a virtual news blackout, but he said
Israel was ready to show flexibility, noting that Netanyahu had
already described a future Kerry paper as an American document.
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That could give Netanyahu - and Abbas - leeway to register
reservations that could keep political opponents of a deal at bay.
U.S. officials hope for at least modest progress but do not foresee
a breakthrough in the Oval Office meeting, which Netanyahu will
follow with talks with Congressional leaders.
"If the president is able to sort of narrow gaps and get closer to
where both parties support the ideas and the framework," a senior
administration official said, "then that would be great."
But the official added, "It's not like this is going to be another
Camp David 2000 ... I wouldn't expect major announcements about the
future of the peace negotiations."
While the Palestinian issue and Western powers' nuclear talks with
Iran are expected to dominate the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, the
Israeli leader's visit is likely to be overshadowed by the crisis in
Obama spent much of the weekend scrambling to ease the situation,
including a long phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in
which the U.S. president warned of economic and political isolation
if Moscow did not withdraw its troops from Ukraine's Crimea region.
On the Iranian issue, there is little expectation on either side
that the leaders will be able to bridge their fundamental
Netanyahu, whose country is widely believed to be the Middle East's
only nuclear-armed nation, denounced as a "historic mistake" an
interim deal that world powers reached with Iran in November under
which it agreed to curb sensitive nuclear activities in return for
limited sanctions relief.
He has demanded that any final deal completely dismantle Tehran's
uranium enrichment centrifuges, a position at odds with Obama's
suggestion that Iran, which says its nuclear program is peaceful,
could be allowed to enrich on a limited basis for civilian purposes.
"They're not going to have a meeting of the minds on this," said
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)
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