Netanyahu: Israel Ready for Immediate Peace Talks

Netanyahu meets U.S. lawmakers amid rift in Mideast policy, braced for questions on Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel was prepared to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinian Authority immediately.

Concluding his three-day trip in Washington, the prime minister said that he and U.S. President Barack Obama were "working together to reignite the peace process and are looking for ways to bring external sources from the Arab world into the process."

Netanyahu met Tuesday on Capitol Hill with House and Senate leaders and a group of Jewish lawmakers, who were expected to question him on his refusal to endorse the cornerstone of international Mideast policy, the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

U.S. Senator John Kerry, a Democrat and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, said following talks with Netanyahu that he was encouraged by a number of things the Israeli leader said.

Kerry said he had stressed to Netanyahu the importance of Israel moving forward, especially in respect to the settlements issue. But Kerry said he also told the Israeli that the issue was not a one-way street and that Arab steps toward joining the regional road map to peace were also critical.

Netanyahu said he told Kerry and the other senators that the threat from Iran remains a strong part of any equation for negotiations. "We intend to pursue the peace track independent of what happens in Iran," Netanyahu said, adding that "in point of fact, it should be done in parallel."

Netanyahu said that Israel and its neighbors recognize the threat from Iran, and noted that "I was assured by President [Barack] Obama yesterday that the U.S. is committed to preventing that from happening.

U.S. House Speaker said following the talks that while the U.S. was committed to a Jewish state, a real solution to the conflict required Israel to live beside a sovereign Palestinian entity.

"There have been previous agreements that talk about a two-state solution, but I emphasize the word solution," she said. "It must be a solution that provides for a Democratic, Jewish State of Israel, living side-by-side with her Palestinian neighbors."

Pelosi added that the U.S. would continue to work for release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. "Every opportunity we get... we want to shine a bright light on the plight of Gilad Shalit," she said. "His father was just recently here and I promised that we would continue to work and pray for his release. We want his captors to know that he has many friends in the Congress of the United States and we are concerned about his freedom."

U.S. official: Gap remains between Israel and U.S. policy

During his talks with the U.S. lawmakers, Netanyahu was to lay out his vision of Mideast peacemaking and make his case for strong action against Iran, a day after Obama said the U.S. would not have talks forever on stopping the Iranian nuclear program.

Following Obama's meeting with Netanyahu at the White House on Monday, American officials said there was "more work to do" in bridging the gaps between Jerusalem and Washington over the Palestinian question.

Obama told Netanyahu the U.S. would soon present a new peace initiative to include Arab nations alongside Israel and the Palestinian Authority in peace negotiations. The two met at the White House on Monday, including one hour and 45 minutes with no one else present.

The official said that Israel and the U.S. see eye-to-eye on the need to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, yet Netanyahu's hesitancy to support a two-state solution and to take steps in curbing Israel's settlement activity remain a bone of contention between the premier and Obama.

Contacts between Israeli and U.S. officials will continue in the coming weeks. Administration officials expect to hear from their Israeli counterparts what steps they are ready to take that will bring about a freeze in settlement construction and the removal of West Bank outposts.

The U.S. is eager to hear Israel's proposals before Obama's speech he is to deliver in Cairo on June 4. Washington attaches great importance to Israeli concessions on settlements as a confidence-building measure that will facilitate normalization of relations between Jerusalem and the Arab world.

During Monday's meeting at the White House, Obama pressed for a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict, but failed to win a public commitment from Netanyahu on Palestinian statehood.

In their first White House talks, Obama also urged Netanyahu to freeze construction of settlements, but sought to reassure Israelis wary about his overtures to Iran, saying he would not wait indefinitely for diplomatic progress on curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions.