U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched their first White House talks on Monday grappling with rare U.S.-Israeli differences over Middle East peacemaking and how to deal with Iran.
The meeting, which began at 5:30 P.M. (Israel time), was scheduled to end at 7 P.M. and was to be followed by a joint statement by the two leaders, but the meeting was prolonged by 30 minutes and the joint statement delayed.
It is not yet clear why the meeting was prolonged, but it raised speculations that perhaps a disagreement arose between the prime minister and the American president.
Wading into the thicket of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy four months after taking office, Obama planned to press the hawkish Israeli leader to endorse Palestinian statehood and freeze Jewish settlement expansion.
But Netanyahu, who heads a new right-leaning government that has balked so far at embracing a two-state solution, appeared unlikely to comply.
He was expected instead to urge Obama to put the elusive quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace on the back burner and make the campaign to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions a more urgent priority. Israel, uneasy over Obama's overtures to engage with Tehran, has not ruled out military strikes if diplomacy fails.
The prime minister's aides say he is encouraged by an interview in Newsweek Sunday in which Obama says he is not "naive" about Iran and is not taking "any options off the table." The purpose of the planned dialogue is to "offer Iran an opportunity to align itself with international norms," according to Obama.
He said he understands why Israel views Iran as an "existential threat," and that because of this, Israelis' "calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They're right there in range, and I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are." Obama can "make an argument" that his approach "offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to some of the other alternatives."
While Netanyahu does not oppose the planned dialogue between Iran and the U.S., he wants more details on how it will be conducted. Israel says the dialogue must include clear conditions, including on Iran's nuclear activity during the talks, and a clear time limit. This view is shared by some senior American officials, including the special envoy on Iran, Dennis Ross. Israel says the time limit should be around three months.
Netanyahu's effort to shift the focus of stalled peace talks away from tough issues such as borders and the future of Jewish settlements could mean a rocky road ahead in traditionally strong U.S.-Israeli relations.
It puts him at odds with Obama, who has endorsed the goal of Palestinian independence, a cornerstone of U.S. policy for years, and has pledged to keep peacemaking high on his agenda.
Underscoring the obstacles Obama faces, an Israeli official confirmed on Monday that contractors had been asked for plans to expand a settlement in the West Bank, a project the United States has already condemned as problematic to peace moves.
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