AFP- Israel needs to make tough decisions if peace talks with the Palestinians are to have a future, US President Barack Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.
In a joint address at the White House as a major snowstorm blanketed the city, the two leaders were clearly at odds.
Obama pushed for a decision on peace, while Netanyahu insisted Israel had done its part and that Iran is now the most urgent threat.
Israel and the Palestinians have been engaged in seven months of direct peace talks which are due to expire at the end of April, and decision time is at hand, Obama said.
The deadline, he said “is coming near and some tough decisions are going to have to be made.”
But the Israeli leader hit back, telling the president that Israel had already done its part to further peace talks and that the ball was now firmly in the Palestinians’ court.
“Israel has been doing its part, I regret to say the Palestinians haven’t,” he retorted, saying Israel had “uprooted entire settlements” and released hundreds of Palestinian “terrorists.”
The two leaders, who have struggled to overcome mutual antipathy, once again found themselves very publicly at odds.
Netanyahu quickly moved to declare that Iran, and not the peace process, was the number one priority the allies must confront.
The “greatest challenge, undoubtedly, is preventing Iran from acquiring the capacity to make nuclear weapons,” he told Obama, leaning forward in his chair and gesticulating to make the point.
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 US leader looked on impassively, nodding almost imperceptibly at several points, resting his clenched jaw on his hand.
While Obama’s remarks were mostly general, listing the topics the two men would discuss, Netanyahu narrowed in on Israeli grievances over Iran’s nuclear programme and the perceived raw deal Israel had got from the peace process.
In their meeting, which began immediately after the photo op, Obama was expected to push Netanyahu to agree to a framework proposal for future talks, which was pieced together by Secretary of State John Kerry and would extend the negotiations beyond the 29 April deadline.
It will be Obama’s most significant entry into peacemaking since 2010 when his first attempt at Middle East mediation collapsed after just three weeks in a bitter dispute over settlements.
“There’s a sense that the negotiations have reached a point where only presidential engagement, direct presidential engagement, can move them forward,” said Haim Malka, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The as-yet-unpublished framework, which addresses the most nettlesome issues of the conflict such as borders, security and the future status of Jerusalem, was central to Netanyahu’s morning meeting with Kerry, a senior Israeli official said.
Analysts say Netanyahu was leaning towards accepting the framework, but so far the Palestinians have rejected any attempt to extend the deadline, denouncing Kerry’s ideas as biased in Israel’s favour and unworkable.
On Sunday, Netanyahu vowed he would “insist on Israel’s vital interests” and withstand pressure.
But Obama also prepared the ground for the meeting, giving an interview in which he warned that “continued aggressive settlement construction” would expose Israel to further international isolation.
The question of settlement construction was further hammered home Monday with the publication of figures showing new construction starts in West Bank settlements increased by 123.7% in 2013.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Washington may also demand a partial freeze on construction in isolated settlements outside the major West Bank blocs in a bid to ensure the Palestinians remain at the negotiating table.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat hailed Obama’s words, telling Voice of Palestine radio that idea that continued settlement would bring Israel security was “an illusion.”
“Netanyahu needs to understand this. This is the truth,” said Erakat, who is to fly to Washington for more talks on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu will address the annual policy conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC, focusing largely on Iran.
The Israeli leader sees the diplomatic opening by Iran’s Hassan Rouhani as nothing but a charm offensive, but with Obama keen to see the diplomatic process run by the P5+1 play out, Israel’s protests are likely to fall on deaf ears.