Story Highlights

  • Netanyahu's U.S. trip seen as bridge building effort after tensions with Obama administration
  • Israelis and Palestinians currently holding indirect talks mediated by Obama envoy
  • PM says he is willing to discuss future of settlements 'right away' in direct talks
Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walking at the White House, on July 6, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. Jewish leaders on Wednesday that direct Palestinian-Israeli talks would begin "very soon", but warned that they would be "very, very tough."

Netanyahu told his cabinet earlier this week before flying to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama that the time had come for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to prepare to meet directly with the Israelis, as it was the only way to advance peace.

Israelis and Palestinians have been holding indirect talks mediated by Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. Aides to Obama sounded a hopeful tone regarding the negotiations last week, telling reporters that the shuttle diplomacy between the two sides had paid off and the gaps have narrowed.

At a meeting with representatives of Jewish organizations at the Plaza Hotel late Wednesday, Netanyahu discussed the efforts to promote Middle East peace."This is going to be a very, very tough negotiation," he said, adding: "The sooner the better."

 "Direct negotiations must begin right away, and we think that they will," he said

Obama had warm words about Netanyahu after their talks on Tuesday and affirmed the unbreakable bond that links the United States and Israel.The last meeting between the two leaders earlier this year had been frosty, overshadowed by Israel's announcement of construction in East Jerusalem despite the temporary settlement freeze.

Netanyahu on Wednesday described his meeting with Obama as positive, adding that America has no better friend or ally than the State of Israel.

In an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric later Wednesday, Netanyahu was asked why he had such a positive outlook and whether anything in his talks with Obama had been disappointing.

"You know, you ... you remind me of the Israeli press. They say, 'How come you had a good meeting with President Obama?' Well, because I did," he responded.

"Because we, we actually see eye to eye on ... some central issues. The quest for peace. The danger of Iran. The need to bolster security, for Israel and the region. That's the truth. We do see it. Have we had differences? Of course we have."

"Some awkward moments?" Couric asked. He replied: "Yeah, of course, we've had. So what?"

Meanwhile, Netanyahu told Larry King on CNN that he was prepared to discuss "right away" the future of settlements if Palestinians entered direct peace talks with Israel.

Asked if he would extend beyond September a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu said it was time for the Palestinians to drop preconditions for face-to-face talks.

"Let's just get into the talks and one of the things we'll discuss right away is this issue of settlements and that's what I propose doing," he said. "I put on a temporary freeze – seven months passed by but the Palestinians didn’t come and now they need another extension."

"It requires courage on the Palestinian side to stand up and do what the latest president of Egypt Anwar Saddat did – to say 'It’s over, enough with the bloodshed.'"

Asked if he would sit down at the negotiations table with Hamas, Netanyahu said he "would sit down with anyone who recognizes our existence and not calling for our destruction."

Regarding the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, Netanyahu told  King that he had received no response from Hamas.

"I've accepted the deal [of the mediator] and I hope they'll change their mind," he said.

Netanyahu also met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to discuss the efforts promote Middle East peace and the continuing closure of Gaza. The two met for nearly an hour at the UN headquarters, for talks that included a one-on-one discussion.

Netanyahu did not speak to reporters following those talks, and UN associate spokesman Farhan Haq issued a very brief statement saying only that they discussed the Middle East peace process, Gaza closures and Lebanon among other topics.

Following a meeting in Washington earlier Wednesday with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Netanyahu said said that a final status agreement must provide for the possibly of renewed hostilities on Israel's eastern border following an American withdrawal from Iraq.

The prime minister's comments appear to indicate that even after a withdrawal from Palestinian territory, he would insist on maintaining an Israeli military presence along the Jordan Valley, which forms the border between Jordan and the West Bank.

Netanyahu also told Gates that any peace settlement must include safeguards to prevent the transfer of rockets and other weapons into a future Palestinian state.