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?”
He warned in the interview that if Palestinians reach the conclusion that the possibility of statehood is out of their reach, the U.S. may not be able to manage the fallout at the United Nations or other international bodies.
An Obama adviser said Monday that the president plans to put similar pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when he visits Washington this month. The adviser requested anonymity in discussing the strategy.
Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Monday for the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference, placed the blame for stalled talks on Palestinians, claiming they haven’t come to the bargaining table with flexibility.
U.S. lawmakers, many of whom attended the AIPAC meeting, voiced support for Israel and echoed Netanyahu’s contention that Iran should remain a top U.S. priority.
“None of us desires military conflict,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), wrote in a letter to Obama. “But as you yourself have acknowledged, we must keep all options on the table to prevent this dangerous regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Obama skipped the AIPAC conference this year, but Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew defended the administration’s policy on Iran during a speech Sunday, saying the U.S. would maintain tough sanctions until the nuclear standoff with Iran was resolved.
In Israel, a spokesman for West Bank settlers said Obama’s interview published over the weekend showed “gross misunderstanding of the reality in our region.”
“It is incredible that as we bear witness to massacres and invasions across the globe, President Obama reserved the term ‘aggressive’ to describe the construction of houses for young Israeli families in the Jewish homeland,” said Dani Dayan, foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, which represents settlers living on land Israel seized during the 1967 Middle East War.
Last year, Israel more than doubled the number of new housing starts in West Bank settlements, according to a report Monday by Haaretz newspaper. Most of the international community views Israel’s construction in the occupied West Bank as illegal.
Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who was also in the U.S., told Israel Radio that Obama’s warning “is sinking in, and the prime minister must understand it.”
Pool photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Abaca Press/MCT