No progress visible from Obama-Netanyahu talks

McClatchy NewspapersMay 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged Monday from hours of meetings with President Barack Obama agreeing to restart the Palestinian peace process "immediately," but with conditions that indicated that no breakthroughs are imminent.

Obama, meanwhile, defended his diplomatic approach to Israel's enemy Iran, saying that the Iranian-supported terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah had grown stronger under the Bush administration's no-diplomacy stance toward Iran.

"We're not going to have talks forever," Obama said, and he predicted that "we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year" as to whether a diplomatic approach to Iran is going anywhere.

In a joint appearance with Obama at the White House, Netanyahu said that any progress with the Palestinians would hinge on the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu also declined to use the phrase "two-state solution," which Obama said should be the goal. Instead, Netanyahu said that Israelis "don't want to govern Palestinians. We want to live in peace with them. We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel."

Obama said that Israeli "settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." Netanyahu, however, made no public commitment toward that, and as they met, Israeli settlers were moving forward with plans to build Israel's first new settlement in the Jordan Valley in more than a quarter-century.

The two leaders spoke kindly to one another. Netanyahu called Obama "a great leader of the world" and a friend. Obama praised the prime minister's "youth and wisdom" and announced, "I'm confident that he's going to seize this moment."

However, their body language appeared strained at times during their public appearance, and Obama made clear that he expects Israel to make some concessions.

"We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the prime minister that he has an historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure," he said.

The leaders didn't issue any joint agreement following the meeting, which comes a week ahead of separate meetings Obama has scheduled with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In a conference call with media after the joint appearance, organized by the pro-diplomacy Israel Peace Forum, Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said of Obama and Netanyahu, "I don't know that they moved the ball."

Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and peace negotiator who also participated on the call, said, "I don't think there was a change in Netanyahu's position ... there's nothing new."

David Elhanni, the head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, said Monday that builders toured the site as they prepared to bid on a plan to build the first 20 homes.

The Maskiot settlement is one of the most contentious in the West Bank. Israel has agreed under the U.S.-backed Road Map peace plan not to build new settlements in the West Bank, but it doesn't accept the plan's requirements that it halt all building in existing settlements.

Settlers and Israeli leaders contend that Maskiot isn't a new settlement because it's been used as a military prep school for years.

Debra DeLee, the president of Americans for Peace Now, described the settlement news as "a slap in the face to President Obama."

"Israel can't have it both ways," said DeLee. "Netanyahu can't come to Washington to talk peace while building a new settlement in the West Bank."

Ilan Ghilon, a left-leaning Israeli lawmaker with the nation's Meretz Party, said, "The government is on its way to a collision with the Obama administration."

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, said Netanyahu's government was "acting like an elephant in a china store."

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, issued a statement saying that Palestinians welcomed Obama's involvement and support for a two-state solution, but that "only a reversal in Israel's policies on the ground can restore credibility to the peace process."

"This includes an immediate and complete freeze on all settlement activity, including all natural growth, lifting all restrictions on Palestinian movement, and an immediate end to Israel's siege on Gaza," he said.

"By failing to endorse the two-state solution, Benjamin Netanyahu missed yet another opportunity to show himself to be a genuine partner for peace," he said.

(Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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