JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s prime minister welcomed Thursday President Barack Obama’s call for the resumption of Mideast peace talks without preconditions despite Palestinian demands for a halt to new Jewish settlements in the West Bank before any new negotiations begin.
In the past, Obama had said all Israeli building must stop on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state. But he toned down his language Tuesday at a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York, where he spoke of Israeli steps “to restrain settlement activity.” And in a speech to the U.N. Wednesday, Obama called for talks to restart without conditions. “I’m pleased that President Obama accepted my request that there should be no preconditions,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio by telephone from New York.
Netanyahu is proposing a partial and temporary slowdown, while Palestinian leaders say there can be no negotiations without a complete halt to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama criticized Israel’s settlement policy, saying that “American does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” But the Obama’s statement was no more critical of the settlements than previous U.S. administrations have been since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast War.
Netanyahu said the U.S. position was nothing new but said he was pleased Obama did not make the issue a prerequisite for talks.
“The president of the United States said unequivocally that is not an issue that should prevent the start of negotiations,” he said.
Netanyahu added that dropping preconditions to talks along with Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state were the key to peace in the Middle East. In his U.N. speech Obama supported that goal, along with creation of an independent Palestinian state.
“At the end of the day those are the most important things for peace,” Netanyahu said.