Jonathan Ferziger, Roger Runningen
July 7, 2010 - 12:00am

President Barack Obama said direct Israel-Palestinian talks may get started within less than three months, praising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a leader prepared to take “risks for peace.”
Obama and Netanyahu, speaking to reporters at the White House yesterday after an 80-minute meeting, both said they wanted to dispel concerns that the U.S. commitment to Israel has been weakened by disputes over construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem. The two leaders ate lunch together with advisers.
“I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president,” Obama said, sitting opposite the Israeli leader in the Oval Office. “I think that he is dealing with a very complex situation in a very tough neighborhood.”
Obama has been trying to persuade Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to move beyond the indirect talks they have been conducting through U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell and hold face-to-face negotiations. The president indicated that direct talks may take place before the expiration of a Netanyahu’s temporary West Bank construction freeze on Sept. 26.
“My hope is that once direct talks have begun -- well before the moratorium has expired -- that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Obama said.
More Progress
Abbas who visited Obama at the White House on June 9, wants to see more progress in the indirect talks before going to the negotiating table with Netanyahu, spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told Agence France-Presse after the White House meeting. Abbas in the past has ruled out moving from the so-called proximity talks to direct negotiations unless Israel halts all settlement construction in the West Bank.
“The Palestinian leadership awaits answers on borders and security in order to know if it should undertake direct talks,” Abu Rudeina said, speaking to AFP from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Abbas was on an official visit.
The fact that the president suggested that direct talks are imminent means “he knows something that we don’t,” Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in a telephone interview.
“What Obama now understands is that fighting with the Israelis is inevitable and appropriate if it driven by a strategy that can ultimately make the president, Israel and the Arabs look good,” said Miller, who was a member of the U.S. mediating team for Middle East peace efforts under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
‘Helpful Diplomatically’
Netanyahu’s moratorium, though “riddled with holes,” has still “created an atmosphere that has been helpful diplomatically,” Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, a group that advocates for a peaceful end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, said in a telephone interview.
The president described U.S.-Israeli ties as an “unbreakable” bond and said he had an “excellent” discussion with Netanyahu.
“The U.S. will never ask Israel to take risks that would undermine its security,” Obama said.
U.S. officials say that relations between the two countries have grown closer since March, when Israel’s announcement of an east Jerusalem housing plan in the midst of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden drew criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
‘Concrete Steps’
The Israeli prime minister told reporters that he and Obama “discussed concrete steps” that can be done immediately and over coming days and weeks “to move the peace process further along.” Netanyahu didn’t offer specifics.
Obama referred to them as a “range” of confidence- building measures that would lead to direct talks. “It’s high time to begin direct talks,” Netanyahu said.
“Israelis are prepared to do a lot for peace but they want to make sure” no threat emerges such as the 2007 seizure of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, Netanyahu said after the meeting with Obama. The Islamic movement rejects Israel’s right to exist and fired about 3,200 rockets and mortars into Israel in 2008, according to the Israeli army. The attacks prompted a military offensive by Israel on Gaza in December 2008.
Hamas, classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, has kept up the barrage. The number of projectiles fired from Gaza totaled 708 last year and about 160 so far this year, the army said June 8.
Iran Sanctions
Obama and Netanyahu conferred on what they say is the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Netanyahu praised sanctions that Obama signed into law last week, targeting Iranian gasoline imports and banking access, as measures that “bite.”
Obama also warned that he would fight efforts to focus on Israel’s atomic program at a Middle East nuclear conference planned for 2012.
“The president emphasized that the conference will only take place if all countries feel confident that they can attend, and that any efforts to single out Israel will make the prospects of convening such a conference unlikely,” the White House said in a statement issued after the meeting with Netanyahu.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017