US President Barack Obama has held intense first talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, laying bare differences on Iran and the US goal of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu said he was ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians “immediately” but did not publicly back Obama\’s insistence that the end goal be a Palestinian “state”.
In a meeting which took place among signs of division between the allies, Obama said he was “confident” that progress on the Israel-Palestinian question was possible in the “days, weeks and months to come” and praised Netanyahu\’s historic vision.
He also reassured Israel that his diplomatic effort to halt Iran\’s nuclear drive should not be open ended and expressed hope for progress in negotiations by the end of the year, but warned of tough new sanctions if Tehran did not respond.
The two leaders met at the White House for an high-stakes first summit that stretched an hour over its allotted time of two hours. The two leaders then spoke to reporters in the Oval office.
Obama said that Iran must show it is committed to progress in nuclear talks by the end of the year, while Netanyahu graphically described his fears that a nuclear-armed Iran could pose an existential threat to his nation.
Progress on Iran \’by year\’s end\’
The US president said he expected little headway in diplomacy with Tehran until after Iranian elections in June, and he declined to lay out a firm timeline for progress.
But he added: “We are not going to have talks forever,” addressing Israel\’s fear that Iran will prolong diplomacy for months just to give it more time to build nuclear weapons.
“My expectation would be that if we begin discussions soon, shortly after the Iranian elections, we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction,” Obama said.
Netanyahu, speaking separately to reporters later, welcomed Obama\’s remarks, but insisted “Israel reserves its right to defend itself”.
“I hope the president\’s plan succeeds,” he said. “What is important is the commitment to the result — that Iran does not develop military nuclear capability.”
During their joint appearance, Obama also pressed Netanyahu to work towards a Palestinian state.
US hopes for two-state solution
“I believe it is in the interest not only of the Palestinians but also the Israelis and the United States and the international community to achieve a two-state solution,” Obama said.
Netanyahu did not use the word “state” and said the two sides should not get hung up on “terminology”.
He warned of dire consequences if the West Bank fell, like Gaza, under control of the Hamas Islamic organization.
But he hailed Obama as a “great leader” and pledged he was ready to open talks with the Palestinians “immediately”.
“I want to make it clear that we don\’t want to govern the Palestinians – we want to live in peace with them,” Netanyahu said.
“We want them to govern themselves absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel.
Tough diplomatic challenge
“The goal has to be an end to conflict. There\’ll have to be compromises by Israelis and Palestinians alike. We\’re ready to do our share. We hope the Palestinians will do their share as well.”
The White House meeting marked Obama\’s most testing diplomatic challenge yet after he made clear that he would push for a peace deal based on a Palestinian state and seek to defuse Iran\’s nuclear drive with diplomacy.
Netanyahu, at the head of a hawkish Israeli governing coalition, is working on his own regional policy, focused on countering Iran.
Netanyahu was also set to have a working dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later Friday, and to hold talks with Obama\’s national security advisor, James Jones.
His visit was the latest in a string of visits of Middle Eastern leaders to the White House in the run-up to Obama\’s long-awaited address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4.
Obama has already hosted Jordan\’s King Abdullah II and will meet Egypt\’s President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in the next few weeks.