President Obama and Israeli PM Netanyahu Optimistic About Peace Process

Obama, Netanyahu still at odds on the two-state solution after meeting.

ByABC News
May 18, 2009, 9:04 AM

May 18, 2009— -- President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu professed optimism today on coming to terms on issues such as Palestine and Iran, but behind their profuse praises for each other, the two leaders have clear differences on the two-state solution and the construction of settlements in disputed territories.

Obama reiterated his call for the two-state solution after a two-hour meeting today with Netanyahu, and called on both Israelis and Palestinians to work together to improve security in the region.

Weeks into his leadership, Netanyahu has refused to embrace a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, and to stop continued construction of settlements on land Israel captured in the 1967 war.

Today, the prime minister said Israel is willing to start negotiations with Palestinians but did not mention a two-state solution or the end of settlements.

Obama, referring to the 2003 negotiations that called for the end of settlements and on the Palestinian leadership to halt terrorist attacks against Israel, said that "Under the road map, under Annapolis, there is a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements; that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That's a difficult issue. I recognize that. But it's an important one, and it has to be addressed."

"I have said before and I will repeat again that it is, I believe, in the interests not only of the Palestinians but also the Israelis and the United States and the international community to achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security," he said.

The president said Palestinians would have to provide security assurances and that the leadership needs to gain legitimacy in its own community. At the same time, Israel, Obama said, has to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the issue of settlements.

"The humanitarian situation in Gaza has to be addressed," Obama said. "The fact is that if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can't even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel's long-term security or a constructive peace track to move forward. So all these things are going to have to come together. And it's going to be difficult."

Seemingly playing the part of the diplomat, Obama said Israelis and Palestinians must "seize this opportunity and this moment" for peace. Netanyahu said he supported self-government for the Palestinians but did not openly express support for the "two-state" solution, only saying that when two people live side by side, terminology can be sorted out.

Netanyahu said that if, and when, negotiations were to start, there are two issues on which Israel is not willing to negotiate: First, that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state -- referring to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas' refusal last month to do so -- and, second, that his country needs to have the means to defend itself.

On the issue of Iran -- the topic atop Netanyahu's agenda for this meeting -- Obama said he would like to see progress with Tehran by the end of the year, but said that the United States was not closing off a "range of steps" against Iran, including sanctions, if it continues its controversial nuclear program.

He rejected an Israeli reporter's thesis that his outreach would embolden militants, adding that the strategy adopted so far has not worked.

"It's not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness," the president responded.

Obama said the United States should be able to assess, by the end of the year, how talks between the United States and Iran are developing.

"I don't want to set an artificial deadline," Obama said, when asked whether United States had set a timeframe. "I think it's important to recognize that Iran is in the midst of its own elections. ... Election time is not the best time to get business done...I believe it is not only in the interests of the international community that Iran not develop nuclear weapons; I firmly believe it is in Iran's interest not to develop nuclear weapons, because it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and be profoundly destabilizing in all sorts of ways."

Netanyahu said Iran's potential nuclear capability threatens not only Israel's security, but interests worldwide.

The two leaders praised each other profusely after the meeting, with Obama dubbing Netanyahu one with "both youth and wisdom," and the Israeli PM calling the president "a great leader."

But in the runup to the leaders' first meeting since taking on their respective posts, both came in with varying agendas. For Obama, differences about Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution was a top priority. He sees the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a crucial goal that's in America's interests.

Even if Netanyahu were inclined to support a two-state solution, his hands may be politically tied. A wide majority of parliament members in Netanyahu's conservative Likud party oppose such a move, according to the Jerusalem Post. At least seven Likud ministers are on record against a Palestinian state, according to the newspaper.

As for what was on Netanyahu's plate, the front page of a leading Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv summed it best: "Iran First."