Obama and Peres
U.S. President Barack Obama with President Shimon Peres in the White House. Photo by Reuters
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WASHINGTON - It's more urgent than ever to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. President Barack Obama said after meeting with President Shimon Peres in the White House yesterday.

"I think he and I both share a belief that this is both a challenge and an opportunity, that with the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it's more urgent than ever than we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis," said Obama. Obama also said "he had some very interesting ideas around those issues."

Calling Peres "an extraordinary statesman," Obama also said the two discussed how to help promote both democracy and economic opportunity in Egypt.

"He also recognizes the fact that in a country like Egypt, not only do we need to be nurturing democracy, but we also have to make sure that economic opportunity is growing there," Obama said about Peres. "And so we explored some ideas about how we can provide some help and make sure that young people there see a brighter future."

Obama said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke extensively about the subject during her recent trip to Egypt and added that Washington will "probably be rolling out some additional plans on that front."

Peres, too, said that it was necessary to return to peace talks. "We don't want to be in controversy with the Muslim world. We want to make friends with them. We want to have peace," Peres told reporters outside the White House.

Responding to a Haaretz question on the political initiative proposed by Israeli public figures yesterday, Peres said he would discuss only the official government position. He said he thought Israel was ready to renew negotiations.

The meeting took place even as the United States condemned the announcement this week that new apartment buildings have been approved for the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

Preliminary approval for 942 new apartments was given by Jerusalem municipal officials on Monday. Although it would take years before construction starts, the project will likely infuriate the Palestinians, who consider the Jewish neighborhood to be part of East Jerusalem.

Obama did not speak about the housing announcement when he addressed reporters after his Oval Office meeting with Peres. Obama left it to State Department spokesman Mark Toner to condemn Monday's housing announcement.

"We're deeply concerned about the announcement of the approval for these units," Toner said. "We believe that through good-faith direct negotiations the parties should mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties. Ultimately, a lack of resolution to this conflict, harms Israel, harms the Palestinians and harms the interests of the United States and the international community."

The United States wants peace talks to restart, and Obama had pushed for a deal by September 2011. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to be in Washington next month.

Yet, several times, Israeli officials have announced new housing developments at awkward moments for the U.S., most notably just over a year ago when another building project in East Jerusalem was announced during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

The day before the Obama-Peres meeting, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now advising the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, said at a conference in Washington that because of the riots in the Arab world, Israel and the Palestinians have largely been left alone, for the first time in a long time.

Indyk said time was not on Israel's side, since the pressure is mounting ahead of the Palestinians' planned bid for independence at the United Nations in September.