Obama, Netanyahu stress Iran urgency
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Meeting in the Oval Office with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama said Monday that he wants to see progress on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program after the country’s June elections but by the end of the year.
The Iranian issue adds to already thorny Middle East peace efforts, but Obama said he did not want to stick to any “artificial deadlines.”
“I have said from the outset that when it comes to my policies toward Israel and the Middle East, that Israel’s security is paramount, and I repeated that to Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Obama said.
The president said he continues to see a two-state solution for the Middle East conflict, but Netanyahu, who called Obama a “true friend of Israel,” did not commit to the same framework.
Facing the pool of reporters in the Oval Office, Obama addressed the media in his opening statement, but Netanyahu, sporting Israeli colors in a white shirt and solid blue tie, turned directly to Obama to deliver his remarks.
Netanyahu said he wants to “start peace negotiations with the Palenstinians immediately,” and that he and Obama “see exactly eye to eye” on the issue of preventing Iran from building or acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities while at the same time pursuing peace.
Netanyahu, a hard-liner who has offered his own ideas for a negotiated two-state solution, said he wants Israel and the U.S. to continue “working for peace while simultaneously defending ourselves against this common threat.”
The Israeli prime minister said repeatedly that for any peace deals to work, Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but he said he wanted to be clear that “we don’t want to govern the Palestinians.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs brushed off any suggestion that the leaders’ body language showed friction between Obama and Netanyahu, noting that their meeting went far beyond the allotted time.
Gibbs said if the the meeting had been icy, then “why would one stay in there a half an hour longer?”
“That to me says there was quite a lot of serious fencing going on,” former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis said in an Israel Policy Forum conference call Monday afternoon. “And I suspect Netanyahu did say more in private about what he would be able to do but made again the point that he previously made that his political constraints were very tight on what he could admit to publicly at this point.”
Going into the meeting, Netanyahu’s national security adviser said Iran would be the No. 1 topic on the prime minister’s agenda. Israel has left the option for a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities on the table at a sensitive juncture at which Obama is extending a diplomatic hand to Iran in order to defuse long-running tensions.
Obama and Netanyahu will likely be working with the same president after Iran’s June 12 elections, though, after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei all but endorsed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for another term Monday, saying Iranians should not vote in someone who “thinks about endearing himself to some Western power.” A prominent opposition candidate has challenged Ahmadinejad on Holocaust denial and other moves that intentionally antagonize the West.
As the leaders met Monday, Iran’s parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, gave a speech stating “that under no circumstances will the Islamic Republic of Iran recognize the Zionist regime and believes that any country doing so would be defamed among nations,” according to a summary from the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
In the address, Larijani railed against the U.S. and its approach to both the Jewish state and Iran’s nuclear program.
“I believe that there is no real change in U.S. policy during Obama’s administration but we will wait to see the real meaning of ‘change’ in U.S. policies,” Larijani said.
Concern about Iran’s rhetoric against the Jewish state and the attacks on Israeli towns launched from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip propelled the hawkish prime minister back into office this spring.
But if finding agreement with Obama on a two-state solution will be difficult, Netanyahu faces even more voices in the cacophony of his ruling coalition, which pulls together the polar-opposite nationalists in the Yisrael Beiteinu party and liberals in the Labor party, plus members of his own Likud party.
Netanyahu favors a long-term two-state solution whereby the fragile Palestinian Authority would be strengthened through economic efforts to shore up the territories’ infrastructure and government. It would also include recognition of Israel as a Jewish state by the Palestinians.
“I think that this is an interesting point,” Oded Eran, a onetime Israeli ambassador to Jordan and the European Union, said in the Israel Policy Forum conference call. “The question is whether Netanyahu makes the point because he sincerely believes this is an issue or whether this is a tactical ploy in order to make it more difficult for the Palestinians, and sort of a quid pro quo coming somewhere down the road in negotiations.”
The Palestinian Authority faces its own challenges in brokering a peace deal, further hampering Obama’s efforts.
Since the violent splinter between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, Fatah has run the West Bank under President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas has controlled Gaza with continued feuding and no unity government in sight. The U.S. has dealt only with Abbas.
The meeting also came on a day that a poll of Israelis showed a marked gap between how Obama and President George W. Bush are perceived when it comes to Israel.
The Smith Research poll of 500 Israelis, reported Monday by the Jerusalem Post, showed that just 31 percent of Israelis consider the Obama administration to be pro-Israel. Forty percent said Obama was neutral between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and 14 percent considered the president pro-Palestinian.
This contrasts sharply with the 88 percent of respondents who called former President George W. Bush pro-Israel. Two percent called Bush pro-Palestinian and 7 percent labeled him neutral.
The meeting comes at a critical point when Obama is preparing to address the Muslim world in a speech promised back on the campaign trail. While reaching out in the speech from Egypt on June 4, Obama will likely want to note progress that the U.S. has achieved or is near to achieving in restarting the Middle East peace process and moving toward a two-state solution.
Gibbs said the president has “already asked members of his team to follow up with members of the Israeli delegation.” National Security Adviser Jim Jones was meeting with his Israeli counterparts later Monday afternoon.
Netanyahu was to be hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a working dinner Monday evening. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the chairman and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, were to meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday morning.
Reaction from American Jewish groups was generally positive Monday.
American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesman Joshua S. Block said the meeting was “clearly a strong reaffirmation of the special relationship between U.S. and Israel.
“This was a first opportunity for two very close allies to meet at the highest level and chart a unified course to meet the many common challenges that confront the two countries,” Block said.
“J Street hopes that Prime Minister Netanyahu will act boldly and wisely in partnership with President Obama to make peace not simply with the Palestinians but with the entire Muslim and Arab worlds, as discussed by both leaders today,” J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement.
“Both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu share a common view of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the region, as well as the opportunity for enhanced cooperation between Arab countries and Israel to deal with Tehran as well as to advance Arab-Israeli peace,” said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris in a statement.
StandWithUs, a nonpartisan Israel education organization that launched a campaign before the meeting urging lawmakers to ask Obama not to pressure Netanyahu into the White House’s two-state solution, affirmed Netanyahu’s stance in a statement Monday.
“Of course Netanyahu is anxious to resume peace talks because Israel has always sought peace with its neighbors,” said international director Roz Rothstein. “This is about terrorism and not territories. For there to be a long-lasting peace, talks must focus on the Palestinians’ ability to secure law and order in their communities, build civic infrastructure and teach peace to their children.
“Imagine, if there was a commitment to peace, the economy and future of both peoples would thrive.”
Eric Zimmermann contributed to this report.
By Sam Youngman and Bridget Johnson
Posted: 05/18/09 03:04 PM [ET]
Source: The Hill