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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

By Christi Parsons and Batsheva Sobelman, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama tried Monday to nudge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward a peace plan with Palestinians, urging him to make the “tough decisions” needed to advance a two-state solution.

But as a U.S.-imposed deadline nears for both sides to accept a proposed framework, Netanyahu pushed back against Obama’s recent suggestion that Israel should try harder to make progress.

“Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t,” Netanyahu said.

Obama and Netanyahu spoke to reporters before their meeting in the Oval Office. Obama said he thought it was “still possible” to have two states — Israel and Palestine — “in which people are living side by side in peace and security.”

“It’s difficult and it requires compromise on all sides,” Obama said as he sat next to the Israeli leader. “The time frame that we have set up for completing these negotiations is coming near, and some tough decisions are going to have to be made.”

Their tone and demeanor were polite during the public comments, in contrast with some previous sessions in which the leaders lectured each other and their personal chemistry was visibly chilly.

Obama noted Netanyahu’s work on the peace process thus far and reiterated his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, a top Israeli priority.

Netanyahu, in turn, emphasized the urgency of containing the Iranian nuclear program — which the Islamic Republic says is for peaceful purposes such as energy generation — but did so without directly criticizing an interim deal to ease some economic sanctions against Iran in return for its curbing of some nuclear activity. Previously, Netanyahu called that deal a “historic mistake.”

With the Ukrainian crisis taking center stage, the two leaders did not hold a full news conference, and Obama answered only one question — about the Russian military in Crimea.

The meeting cast Obama as a more engaged player in a peace process largely driven during the last year by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. Obama is aiming to save the U.S.-brokered framework before the self-imposed deadline this spring.

In the hours before Netanyahu arrived in Washington, Bloomberg News published an interview with Obama in which the president came close to issuing an ultimatum.

“If not now, when?” the president said. “And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”

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