In a White House meeting overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, the
two leaders avoided any direct clash during a brief press appearance
but were unable to paper over differences on a pair of sensitive
diplomatic drives that have stoked tensions between them.
Obama assured Netanyahu of his "absolute commitment" to preventing
Iran from developing atomic weapons, despite the Israeli leader's
deep skepticism over U.S.-led efforts to reach a final international
deal to curb Tehran's nuclear program.
But, warning that time was running out, Obama also urged Netanyahu
to make "tough decisions" to help salvage a faltering U.S.-brokered
peace process aimed at reaching a framework agreement with the
Palestinians and extending talks beyond an April target date for an
elusive final accord.
"The Israeli people expect me to stand strong against criticism and
pressure," Netanyahu told the president.
Obama and Netanyahu, who have had strained relations in the past,
showed no outright tension as they sat side-by-side in the Oval
Office. Both were cordial and businesslike. But their differences
were clear, and when the talks ended after nearly three hours there
was no immediate sign of progress.
Netanyahu arrived in Washington to a veiled warning from Obama that
it would be harder to protect Israel against efforts to isolate it
internationally if peace efforts failed.
The Israeli prime minister used their brief joint appearance to put
the onus on the Palestinians to advance prospects for peace and also
to vow to hold the line on what he sees as Israel's security
In his remarks, Netanyahu offered Obama what was essentially a
history lesson covering the last 20 years of conflict with the
Palestinians as well as what Israelis see as an existential threat
from Iran, arch-foe of the Jewish state.
"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," Netanyahu said.
"And I, as the prime minister of Israel, will do whatever I must do
to defend the Jewish state."
Obama is seeking room for diplomacy with Iran, while Netanyahu, who
has stoked U.S. concern in the past with threats of unilateral
strikes on Iran's nuclear sites, has complained that sanctions on
Tehran are being eased prematurely.
The meeting with Netanyahu marked a new direct foray into Middle
East peacemaking by Obama, whose first-term efforts ended in
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 land-for-peace negotiations to continue, even
though there is widespread skepticism inside and outside of the
region about his chances for success.
Abbas, who seeks Palestinian statehood, is due at the White House on
March 17. He has resisted Netanyahu's demand, repeated during the
Oval Office meeting, for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the
nation-state of the Jewish people.
Netanyahu appeared to be pushing back implicitly against Obama's
warning in a Bloomberg View interview of "international fallout" for
Israel if peace efforts break down and the building of Jewish
Israelis, increasingly concerned about an anti-Israel boycott
movement, view such U.S. warnings as an attempt to squeeze out
Possibly further complicating the talks, an Israeli government
report showed that Israeli construction starts of settler homes had
more than doubled last year.
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Palestinians seek to establish a state in the 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 Islamists opposed to Abbas's peace
OBAMA URGES COMPROMISE
"Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the
Palestinians haven't," Netanyahu said, an assertion he is likely to
repeat on Tuesday to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, a past
podium for some of his most strident speeches.
Obama commended Netanyahu for his role in the talks that resumed in
July but warned that "the time frame that we have set up for
completing these negotiations is coming near."
"It's my belief that ultimately it is still possible to create two
states," he said. "But it's difficult and it requires compromise on
Palestinians point to Israeli settlement-building in occupied West
Bank territory as the main obstacle to peace.
Netanyahu told Obama that Jewish history taught Israelis that "the
best way to guarantee peace is to be strong."
His remark harkened, but without the stridency, to an Oval Office
visit in 2011 when he famously lectured the U.S. president on the
long struggles of the Jewish people, as he sought to counter Obama's
call to base any peace agreement on borders that existed before the
1967 Middle East war.
Ukraine has dominated Obama's agenda. "I know you've got a few other
pressing matters on your plate," Netanyahu joked to Obama, who used
his press appearance to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin that
Moscow faces international isolation for its military intervention
in Ukraine's Crimea region.
On Iran, Obama and Netanyahu gave no real sign of progress in
bridging fundamental differences.
Netanyahu, whose country is widely believed to be the Middle East's
only nuclear-armed nation, has 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 insisted that any final deal must completely dismantle
Tehran's uranium enrichment centrifuges, a position that is 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
On Netanyahu's visit to Congress, where pro-Israel sentiment runs
strong, House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor told him he
backed his demands to dismantle Iran's nuclear program and for
Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Roberta Rampton;
by Bernadette Baum, Tom Brown and Mohammad Zargham)
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