WASHINGTON: Seeking to salvage a Middle East peace plan, President Barack Obama pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday to make the “tough decisions” needed to move forward on talks with the Palestinians.
But facing a U.S.-imposed April deadline, the Israeli leader declared pessimistically that, “Israel has been doing its part and, I regret to say, the Palestinians have not.”
The two spoke before a White House meeting in Washington that marked a more direct foray by Obama into the peace negotiations, which he has so far largely ceded to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry has made nearly a dozen trips to the region over the past year and is seeking to get both sides to sign a framework by the end of April that would serve as a guide for negotiations on a permanent solution to the long-running conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The framework aims to address the core issues in the dispute, including borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of the holy city of Jerusalem.
“It is still possible to create two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine, with people living side by side in peace and security,” Obama said. “But it’s difficult. It requires compromise on all sides.”
“Some tough decisions are going to have to be made,” Obama said.
But Netanyahu, who has pledged to stand firm on Israel’s vital interests and to withstand U.S. pressure, told him it is the Palestinians who need to act. He claimed Israel had “uprooted entire settlements” and released hundreds of Palestinian “terrorists.”
Ignoring Obama’s appeal, Netanyahu said the highest priority for Israel and the United States was not the peace process but preventing Iran from obtaining a military nuclear capacity.
The way to do that was by preventing Iran from enriching uranium and for it to fully dismantle its military nuclear installations, he argued.
Obama will meet in Washington later this month with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Although his tone was courteous, Netanyahu’s remarks, particularly on the peace process, came across as a lecture to Obama on recent Israeli history. The U.S. leader looked on impassively, nodding almost imperceptibly at several points, resting his clenched jaw on his hand. Just hours before Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama, data revealed that Israel began building twice as many settler homes in the occupied West Bank last year as in 2012.
Obama has been sharply critical of Jewish construction on land Palestinians want for a future state. Such settlement is deemed illegal in international law.
A spokesman for Netanyahu had no immediate comment on the figures, which were released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
It said the number of new construction projects in the settlements jumped to 2,534 in 2013 from 1,133 the year before, but did not say where specifically the houses were being built.
Israel’s anti-settlement group Peace Now said the increase in settlement building starts demonstrated the Israeli government’s “lack of commitment to negotiations.”
Meanwhile in Gaza, an Israeli airstrike Monday killed a Palestinian militant who Israel’s military said had been preparing to launch a rocket across the border.
The airstrike was “carried out in order to eliminate an imminent attack targeting civilian communities of southern Israel,” an Israeli military spokesman said.
Palestinian sources said a 24-year-old militant was killed, but it was unclear which group he was affiliated with.