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WASHINGTON - Negotiations without preconditions are the way to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said at the United Jewish Communities annual conference on Tuesday.

"It is only through dialogue that we can achieve the lasting peace that Israel seeks," Emanuel told the UJC's General Assembly in Washington, D.C.

He called for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians to begin as soon as possible and without preconditions, and said negotiations must address permanent-status issues including borders, refugees and Jerusalem.

Emanuel also reiterated the U.S. position that Israel must halt construction in West Bank settlements. "No one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the goal of a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world," he said.

Emanuel was speaking in place of U.S. President Barack Obama, who canceled his scheduled appearance so he could address the memorial service for 13 men and women who died during a shooting rampage on a U.S. Army post at Fort Hood, Texas, last week.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said Israel was making "unprecedented" concessions on West Bank settlement construction, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered concessions - that Israel will build no new settlements, expropriate no land for existing ones and limit the number of permits for new housing construction - indicated he was willing to enter into peace talks without preconditions while the Palestinians were not.

The Obama administration has demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction before negotiations could resume.

Emanuel told the GA participants he strongly believed Netanyahu understood the importance of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. He also said Israel should not be the only side headed toward peace, and called the U.S.-Israel bond "unbreakable."

"Make no mistake, the path toward peace is not one that Israel should be asked to walk alone. That is why the U.S. will remain actively engaged, and Israel's one true friend. The Palestinians must come to the table, recognize Israel's right to exist and reject violence," he said. "As the president has said many times, as the president said in Cairo, the bond between the Israel and the U.S. is unbreakable. It's a bond rooted in shared interests and shared values."

'One of us'

For the first time since taking office, Emanuel, who was introduced to the predominantly Jewish audience as "one of us," also spoke about his personal connection with Israel. "My father is a Jewish Israeli," he said, adding that his parents taught him about the spirit of community.

The chief of staff also sought to assure the audience that the administration's efforts to engage the Muslim world do not come at the expense of U.S.-Israel ties. "There are some who suggest this implies a diminished level of support for Israel," said Emanuel. "That is not the intent and that is not the case, and never will be."

Obama's chief of staff also said the world was increasingly opposed to seeing Iran emerge as a nuclear power. "Today, thanks to the work of the president, there is strong and growing international consensus against a nuclear armed Iran," said Emanuel, adding that Israel has been "a beacon of democracy in a region too often defined by strife."

Iran, along with the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, was also on the agenda of Obama's Monday night meeting with Netanyahu, which Emanuel described as "very positive." Netanyahu addressed the GA on Monday