U.S., Is­raeli lead­ers prom­ise Mideast talks

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By War­ren P. Stro­bel

WASHINGTON — Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said Tues­day dur­ing a care­fully chore­ographed White House meet­ing that was short on de­tails that they’d press for a quick re­sump­tion of di­rect Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace talks.

At a pic­ture-tak­ing ses­sion with Ne­tanyahu, Obama said he hoped that di­rect Mideast talks could be­gin “well be­fore” Is­rael’s mora­to­rium on new West Bank set­tle­ments ex­pires in Septem­ber. He called on Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans to take con­fi­dence-build­ing steps to pre­pare, but he gave few specifics.

“The pres­i­dent and I dis­cussed con­crete steps that could be done now — in the com­ing days, in the com­ing weeks — to move the peace process fur­ther along in a very ro­bust way,” Ne­tanyahu said.

Obama made Mid­dle East peace a pri­or­ity on tak­ing of­fice, but he has strug­gled to show progress. The tone at Tues­day’s meet­ing sug­gested that he has dis­carded his tac­tic of pub­lic con­fronta­tion with Is­rael.

The White House meet­ing was or­ches­trated to project an im­age of an un­trou­bled U.S.Is­raeli al­liance.

Obama even sig­naled, al­beit in diplo­matic code, that his drive for nu­clear non­pro­lif­er­a­tion doesn’t ex­tend to Is­rael’s un­ac­knowl­edged nu­clear arse­nal.

“We strongly be­lieve that, given its size, its his­tory, the re­gion that it’s in and the threats that are lev­eled … against it, that Is­rael has unique se­cu­rity re­quire­ments,” he said.

The tone and at­mo­spher­ics could hardly have been more dif­fer­ent from Ne­tanyahu’s last visit to Washington in March, when the pres­i­dent de­clined even to have his pic­ture taken with the prime min­is­ter. The ad­min­is­tra­tion was smart­ing from an em­bar­rass­ment two weeks ear­lier when an Is­raeli an­nounce­ment of con­struc­tion of 1,600 apart­ments for Is­raelis in dis­puted east Jerusalem up­staged what was to be a fence­mend­ing trip by Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den.

David Makovsky, a scholar at the Washington In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, said U.S.-Is­raeli po­si­tions have con­verged qui­etly in re­cent months on is­sues such as curb­ing Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram and eas­ing Is­rael’s block­ade of the Gaza Strip.

Be­yond the specifics, how­ever, Obama and Ne­tanyahu need to es­tab­lish per­sonal trust in their re­la­tion­ship, Makovsky said.

“These guys might not love Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, left, says he dis­cussed steps to ‘move the peace process fur­ther along in a very ro­bust way’ while meet­ing Tues­day with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. each other, but they have to work to­gether,” he said.

Still, it’s far from cer­tain that the pres­i­dent’s warmer ap­proach to Is­rael will re­sult in any progress to­ward Mideast peace.

Ne­tanyahu is un­der in­tense pres­sure from mem­bers of his right-wing coali­tion at home not to ex­tend the mora­to­rium on new set­tle­ment con­struc­tion in the West Bank to east Jerusalem.

“It’s go­ing to be very hard” to ex­tend it, said Ori Nir, a spokesman for Amer­i­cans for Peace Now, a Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tion that fa­vors Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace. On Tues­day, the group sent the White House a pe­ti­tion with some 16,000 sig­na­tures ask­ing Obama to urge Is­rael to ex­tend the mora­to­rium.

The pres­i­dent didn’t re­ply di­rectly when a re­porter asked him whether the mora­to­rium should be con­tin­ued past Septem­ber.

More­over, Pales­tini­ans want as­sur­ances that any talks will lead to an in­de­pen­dent state.

“We can­not just en­gage again in a process that will lead us nowhere,” said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Pales­tinian en­voy to Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais pho­tos

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