WASHINGTON — As U.S. President Barack Obama continued to prod Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward peace with the Palestinians, the Israeli leader told the president yesterday that Israel has already shouldered enough of the burden.
“Israel has been doing its part and, I regret to say, the Palestinians have not,” Netanyahu said before a meeting in the Oval Office.
With the U.S.-imposed April 29 deadline for a “framework agreement” looming, Obama said the time frame for talks was coming to an end and that “tough decisions will have to be made.”
A two-state solution is still possible, despite the remaining, difficult disputes, said Obama. He commended Netanyahu for approaching the issue with seriousness.
“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.”
But for his part, Netanyahu, in public at least, wasn’t talking about compromise; he was talking about facing down pressure.
“Twenty years of peace process were marked by many Israeli steps for peace, but we got suicide bombers and rockets in return,” Netanyahu said. “The people of Israel expect me to stand strong against pressure and for the security of Israel.”
Sounding as though he were practicing sound bites before his speech today at the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference, Netanyahu said, “It’s about time the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state – we have only been there for 4,000 years.”
Upon landing in Washington on Sunday, Netanyahu told reporters he was committed to negotiations for a final settlement and was waiting to see proof that the Palestinians were as well.
“It takes at least three to dance the Middle East tango,” Netanyahu said. “Two are already there – Israel and the U.S. Now we need to see if the Palestinians are also on board. In any case, in order to reach an agreement, we need to stand firm on our crucial interests. I’ve proven that I’m doing that, against all pressure and all uncertainty, and I’ll continue to do that here as well.”
In an interview with Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg that was published Sunday, Obama sent an unusually blunt message to Netanyahu, telling him that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was the most moderate leader Israel would encounter in the foreseeable future, and that time was running out for a peace deal. Obama urged Netanyahu to “seize the moment” to make peace, giving the impression that Netanyahu was the one who had to be flexible in order to advance the peace talks.
The president paraphrased the words of Hillel the Elder, telling Goldberg the essence of his conversation with Netanyahu is, “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?” If the peace talks fail, Obama said, Washington will have limited ability to protect Israel from what he called “international fallout.”
On Iran, Obama said the United States is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and Netanyahu warned that he will do whatever he must do to defend Israel.
Back in the region, Meretz chairwoman MK Zahava Gal-On said after meeting with Abbas yesterday that he was pessimistic about the chances of reaching a framework agreement that would allow the peace talks to continue.
Gal-On said Abbas told her he could not accept the version of the document that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry submitted to him in Paris two weeks ago, but would wait until after his scheduled March 17 meeting with Obama before making any final decisions on the matter.
“If the American framework agreement doesn’t address our basic principles regarding the core issues, we will not allow the talks to be extended beyond the original end date of April 29,” Gal-On quoted Abbas as saying.
Gal-On added that Abbas told her the Palestinians would agree to continuing the talks beyond the end of April if Israel freezes construction in the West Bank settlements and releases additional prisoners.
The Palestinians want confirmation in writing that the capital of a future Palestinian state will be in East Jerusalem, Abbas told the Meretz leader. With regard to the refugee issue, Abbas said that claims he wants to flood Israel with 5 million Palestinian refugees are a lie.
“I don’t want to destroy Israel and no refugee will return to Israel without Israel’s consent. But I expect Israel to provide a quota of refugees it will absorb each year,” Gal-On quoted him as saying.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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