Obama, Netanyahu meet on Mideast crisis

Breitbart (Link) - AFP (November 10, 2009)

US efforts to revive the Middle East process floundered Tuesday after President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held closed-door talks amid signs of friction.

The two went into talks with the United States having renewed its opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu left the White House after spending an hour and 40 minutes, without making the customary public appearance with the US president.

"The president reaffirmed our strong commitment to Israel's security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues," the White House said in a brief statement.

"The president and prime minister also discussed Iran and how to move forward on Middle East peace."

Netanyahu dismissed reports of tension between him and Obama, twice calling the meeting "positive" in brief comments to reporters before leaving Washington.

The meeting was "very positive and focused. It dealt with an array of important issues including the joint effort to advance the peace process," he said, stressing: "I think the visit will prove to be very important."

Ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu said he was ready to immediately start peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but prospects appear dim.

Aides to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he could resign if the deadlock continues, threatening the viability of the Palestinian Authority.

The summit was announced late Sunday only after Netanyahu had arrived in Washington, forcing both sides to deny the last-minute invitation reflects US frustration with the hawkish premier.

Israeli prime ministers hardly ever go to Washington without meeting the US president, usually holding a high-profile press conference.

Israel's ties with the Obama administration have become strained over Netanyahu's rejection of demands for a full settlement freeze in the West Bank ahead of peace talks.

The White House appeared wary not to present Monday's meeting as a backing of Netanyahu's stance.

"The policy of the United States government for many decades has been: no more settlements, that's not something that is new (with) this administration," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said before the talks.

Netanyahu on Monday urged Abbas, who last week announced he would not run for reelection in January, to start immediate negotiations.

"I say today to Mahmud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, 'let us seize the moment to reach an historic agreement. Let us begin talks immediately,'" he told a conference of North American Jewish leaders.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu heads for Paris to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy, Israeli officials said. He will leave Washington facing a number of setbacks to its efforts to relaunch peace talks.

The first came when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week praised Netanyahu's offer of a limited easing of settlement construction as "unprecedented", triggering Arab fury.

The declaration marked a stark break from months of US support of the Palestinian demand for a total settlement freeze.

Clinton later backtracked, but her statements were widely interpreted as a U-turn by Washington which could put pressure instead on the Palestinians to restart talks without preconditions.

The Obama-Netanyahu meeting a little more than a week after Clinton's remarks would likely reinforce that view among Palestinians and the Arab world, analysts said.

Netanyahu insisted that "no Israeli government has been so willing to restrain settlement activities as part of our efforts to relaunch peace talks."

The Palestinian Authority warned before the Obama-Netanyahu meeting that violence could again erupt if Washington fails to get Israel to halt settlement building.

"Violence will rush in to fill the void left by the failure of efforts to relaunch the peace process if the US administration does not hurry up and exert pressure on the Israeli government," presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.

Abbas's announcement that he would not seek re-election has already complicated Obama's hopes to see new negotiations.

The warning that he could resign adds to the tensions.

"If president Abbas feels that his project of establishing a Palestinian state is in danger and that Israel wants to destroy the idea of a Palestinian state, then I think he will not remain in the position of the presidency," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was also in Washington for talks with his US counterpart Robert Gates and US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, his office said.