US pushes Israel on Middle East deal

President Obama presses Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to make the ‘tough decisions’ necessary for peace

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, Feb. 3, 2014.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

In a meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama said Monday it was imperative that Israel act fast to make peace with the Palestinians and help pave the way toward the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine. 

Seeking to salvage a Middle East peace plan, Obama pressed Netanyahu to make the "tough decisions" necessary to move forward on talks with the Palestinians.

But facing a U.S.-imposed April deadline, the Israeli leader declared pessimistically that "Israel has been doing its part, and, I regret to say, the Palestinians have not."

Netanyahu's comments underscored the slim prospects of reaching an agreement to the long-running conflict, despite an effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Obama and Netanyahu spoke before an Oval Office meeting on a snowy Monday in Washington.

The meeting marked a more direct foray into the peace negotiations by Obama, who will also meet at the White House later this month with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"It is still possible to create two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine, with people living side by side in peace and security," Obama said. "But it's difficult. It requires compromise on all sides."

While the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has improved after early tensions, the two leaders still grapple with deep differences, particularly on Iran.

Israel sees Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat and fears that Tehran is using U.S.-led negotiations to stall while it builds a bomb.

The prime minister is in Washington to speak at the annual meeting of AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel U.S. lobby. Obama, who has twice addressed the conference, is not speaking at this year's meeting, though Kerry was scheduled to speak Monday night.

In excerpts released ahead of his speech, Kerry outlined what he called "the endgame" in peace negotiations. 

He said a peace deal must include security arrangements that leave Israel more secure, mutual recognition of states for the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, an end to all conflict, a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a resolution "that finally allows Jerusalem to live up to its name as the city of peace."

Kerry has made nearly a dozen trips to the region over the past year and is seeking to get both sides to sign a framework by the end of April that would serve as a guide for negotiations on a permanent solution to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The framework aims to address the core issues in the dispute, including borders between Israel and a future Palestine, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of the holy city of Jerusalem.

New Israeli housing statistics showed that Israel began building more than twice as many West Bank settlement homes in 2013 as it did the previous year. The Palestinians consider settlements built on territories captured by Israel in 1967 illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Palestinian negotiators have demanded that Israel agree to base the final borders with a future Palestine on the pre-1967 lines, with small land swaps that would allow Israel to keep some of the settlements it has built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Netanyahu has refused to recognize the 1967 lines as a starting point. He wants to retain an Israeli presence in a strategic area of the West Bank along the border with Jordan and keep large blocs of settlements that are close to Israel.

He has given no indication as to how much territory he is willing to cede, and he has rejected any division of East Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital.

Netanyahu has also demanded that the Palestinians "recognize a state for the Jewish people."

The Palestinians reject this out of hand, saying it would undermine the rights of displaced Palestinian refugees who claim properties in what is now Israel as well as the rights of Israel's Arab minority.

The Palestinians fear the emerging U.S. proposal will largely side with Israel, particularly on the Jewish state, and will include only a vague mention of Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem rather than a specific reference to East Jerusalem.

In an interview with Bloomberg View published on Sunday, Obama stressed the importance of moving forward as quickly as possible on a peace deal.

Obama said the Israelis and Palestinians cannot maintain the status quo of low-level conflict. "There comes a point," he said, "where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices."

"Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?"

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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