WASHINGTON, (AFP) – During an intense first meeting as heads of state, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid bare differing approaches on Iran and the US goal of a Palestinian state.
In blunt comments after more than three hours of talks Monday, Netanyahu offered discussions “immediately” with the Palestinians but stopped short of endorsing Obama’s call for a two-state solution.
Hamas expressed scepticism about statements by Obama.
“The statements by Obama are nothing but wishes on which we do not much count,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said in a statement.
Statements by the US president that “are not accompanied by pressure on the Zionist occupation and concrete measures do not reflect a radical change of American policy toward our people,” he said.
Both leaders also dwelt on Iran, with Obama defending his diplomatic outreach strategy and an impassioned Netanyahu voicing his fears before reporters that a nuclear-armed Tehran would pose a mortal threat to Israel.
The crucial first meeting between two leaders new to power was Obama’s deepest plunge yet into the labyrinth of Middle East peacemaking, which contrasted with his predecessor George W. Bush’s initial hands-off approach.
Obama said after the talks, which included a 90-minute tete-a-tete, that he was “confident” progress on the Israel-Palestinian question was possible.
All international parties have an interest in achieving “a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security,” he said, pointedly referring to Israel as a “Jewish state.”
Obama also said Palestinians would have to do a “better job” in providing security guarantees and called on Arab states to be “bolder” in moving towards normalization with Israel.
Netanyahu, who described the talks as “extraordinarily friendly,” did not use the words “Palestinian state” but also warned against obsessing on “terminology.”
“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 (minus) a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel,” he said, referring, for example, to control of airspace and other areas related to security concerns.
The Palestinians slammed Netanyahu for failing to endorse the creation alongside Israel of a Palestinian state, which has been at the basis of all peace initiatives over the past nearly two decades.
“By failing to endorse the two-state solution, Benjamin Netanyahu missed yet another opportunity to show himself to be a genuine partner for peace,” top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in a statement.
“Calling for negotiations without a clearly defined end-goal offers only the promise of more process, not progress.”
There were also signs of division between the two men on the issue of the construction and expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“Settlements have to be stopped,” Obama said, hours after Israel issued construction tenders for the West Bank settlement of Maskiot.
The shadow of Iran’s nuclear program, which the West and Israel believe is a disguised weapons drive, also loomed over the talks.
The US president said he anticipated little headway in diplomacy with Tehran until after Iranian elections in June, but expected to know by the end of the year whether Iran was making “a good faith effort to resolve differences.”
“We are not going to have talks forever,” Obama said, addressing Israel’s fear that Iran will prolong diplomacy for months just to give it more time to build nuclear weapons.
Obama also rejected a suggestion by a reporter that his offer of talks with Iran could be exploited by the government in Tehran.
“It’s not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness,” Obama said.
Netanyahu, speaking separately to reporters, insisted that “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.”
Netanyahu later met with Obama’s National Security Advisor James Jones before having a working dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that lasted about an hour and a half.
Those discussions, the State Department said, focused again on Iran’s nuclear aspirations and the Middle East peace process.
Clinton “reiterated our support for a two-state solution, and explained our strategy for direct engagement as a means to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” a senior State Department official said.
Netanyahu’s 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 next week.