Obama: "Historic" Chance for Mideast Peace

By Greg Wilson
|  Tuesday, May 19, 2009  |  Updated 11:02 AM CDT
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The hawkish Netanyahu stressed the common ground he and Obama found in their talks.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a "historic opportunity" to jump start the peace process in the Middle East, President Obama said after the pair met.

Speaking after the two met for more than two hours in Washington Monday, Obama acknowledged the challenges Israel faces from terrorism and the Iranian nuclear weapons plan, but called for more diplomacy and restraint, and an end to new settlements in the West Bank.

"We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the prime minister that he has a historic opportunity to get serious movement on this issue during his tenure," Obama said. "That means that all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed to.

"I think that there is no reason why we should not seize this opportunity and this moment," Obama continued.

Netanyahu said he is willing to negotiate toward peace with the Palestinian groups, but that talks must be prefaced by the Palestinian groups' acknowledgment of Israel's right to exist.

The U.S. president called on Iran, which has repeatedly threatened Israel, to end its weapons program, saying it was in everyone's interest, including that of the Iranian people. He said a policy of engagement and direct talks between the U.S. and Iran must be exhausted before other measures are taken. But, Obama said, "we're not going to have talks forever."

Iran possessing nuclear weapons would be "profoundly destabilizing to the Middle East as a whole," Obama said.

The hawkish Netanyahu said the two found some common ground. He did not endorse the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine that Obama backs, but said he appreciated Obama's statement that "all the options are on the table" with regard to disarming Iran.

Before his Feb. 10 election, Netanyahu derided the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which stalled late last year, as a waste of time. But senior White House officials said Saturday that the meeting is part of Obama's commitment to pursue a comprehensive peace that includes a two-state solution.

While not opposing the Obama administration's efforts to promote dialog with Iran and Syria, Israeli officials dismiss Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and fear the U.S. outreach could lead to greater tolerance for Iran's nuclear ambitions. Finally, the Israelis are worried by the recent diplomatic shuttles to Syria for fear they reward Damascus even as it maintains close ties to Tehran and harbors Iranian proxies that have warred with Israel, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Gaza's Hamas.

Netanyahu has tried to persuade the Americans that Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, arsenal of ballistic missiles and militant proxies, must be reined in before peacemaking with the Palestinians can progress.

"Both countries' goal of blocking Iran from achieving (nuclear) capability definitely will be at the heart of the talks, and I imagine there will be a detailed discussion of the most effective means to achieve this aim," Israel's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, said.

Netanyahu confidant Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the U.S., recently said the Israeli leader would ask the U.S. to give Iran a deadline of "a very few months" to comply with international demands to halt its enrichment of uranium — a process that can be used to build nuclear bombs.

"If by then we have not reached an agreement with you, all other options are still on the table," Shoval added in a clear allusion to a military strike.

Obama said yesterday he preferred a policy of engagement that could yield results by the end of the year.

After the meeting, Palestinians offered praise for Obama but expressed disappointment with Netanyahu's remarks.

Netanyahu "did not mention a commitment to a two-state solution, and we need to see American action against this policy," said Nail Abu Redden, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visits the White House on June 28.

Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, issue a similar assessment:

"Mr. Netanyahu failed to mention the two-state solution, signed agreements and the commitment to stop settlement activity. He said he wants the Palestinians to govern themselves. The question to Mr. Netanyahu is, 'How can I govern myself while your occupation continues everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza, and how can I govern myself under your wall, roadblocks and settlement activities?'"

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