By Jonathan Ferziger and Roger Runningen
May 19 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to support Palestinian statehood and said reaching a peace agreement would give the U.S. more leverage in trying to thwart Iran's nuclear program.
Obama said he wants the U.S. and its allies to begin a "serious process of engagement" with Iran after elections there in June, with an assessment of whether the Iranians are serious about talks by the end of the year.
The U.S. president drew an explicit link between progress on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and pressuring Iran to the negotiating table.
"To the extent that we can make peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, I actually think it strengthens our hand" in dealing with Iran, Obama said yesterday with Netanyahu sitting next to him in the Oval Office.
While Netanyahu said he's willing to begin talks with the Palestinians "immediately," he declined to endorse Obama's call for a "two-state solution" to the conflict.
The two leaders, holding their first meeting since both took office this year, were trying to create the conditions to revive the Middle East peace process and address the threat that both agree is posed by Iran.
Obama, 47, says he hopes to persuade Iran's leaders to halt uranium-enrichment efforts, reversing a Bush administration policy that unsuccessfully sought to stop Iran's nuclear efforts through international sanctions. Netanyahu says the possibility that Iran can produce atomic weapons poses an "existential threat" to Israel and won't rule out a military strike against its nuclear facilities.
The Palestinian Authority welcomed the president's statement. "Obama's remarks were encouraging," said Nabi Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Rudeina said Abbas is waiting for his meeting with Obama in Washington next week "to crystallize a unified Arab policy" on Israeli positions.
The Hamas Islamic movement, which seized full control of the Gaza Strip after a unity government with Abbas collapsed in June, 2007, said "Obama's statements are not more than a bunch of wishes that we don't count on very much." The U.S. president "misleads the world's public opinion about the American role in supporting the existence of this fanatic Zionist entity," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in an e-mailed statement.
Red Light, Green Light
Yuval Diskin, head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, said today at a parliamentary committee meeting that as long as Hamas is in control of Gaza an effective diplomatic process has no chance of succeeding, Army Radio reported. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and Europe.
Netanyahu, 59, said after the meeting that Obama gave him neither a "green light nor a red light" on attacking Iran and indicated they agreed to disagree on Palestinian statehood.
"He said what he said, I said what I said, and that's where it stands," Netanyahu said at a briefing for reporters traveling with him from Israel. He rejected speculation that their policy disagreements might cause friction.
"The personal relationship is very important for Israel," he said at the briefing.
Obama said Arab states in the region, including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, share Israel's concern about Iran. The U.S. will pursue negotiations through an existing framework made up of diplomats from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China -- plus Germany.
Obama said there could potentially be "additional direct talks between the U.S. and Iran."
Breaking an Impasse
The worry over Iran may open a way to "break this long- standing impasse" between Israel and the Arab world, he said.
"In order for us to potentially realign interests in the region in a constructive way, bolstering, to use the prime minister's word, the Palestinian-Israeli peace track is critical," Obama said. "I suggested to the prime minister that he has an historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure."
The U.S. president said both sides must make hard choices. The Palestinians need to halt attacks on Israel, and for the Israelis, the "settlements have to be stopped," he said, referring to the sites inhabited by Israelis in territory occupied after the 1967 Middle East war.
While declining to talk about a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said he wants to start peace talks on expanding Palestinian self-rule and strengthening the West Bank economy.
Palestinians said Netanyahu offered no new path to peace.
"By failing to endorse the two-state solution, Benjamin Netanyahu missed yet another opportunity to show himself to be a genuine partner for peace," Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erakat said in an e-mailed statement from Ramallah. "Calling for negotiations without a clearly defined end-goal offers only the promise of more process, not progress."
Erakat dismissed Netanyahu's insistence that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state, calling it a tactic to stall talks on Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu has "domestic political reasons for why he won't come out and say 'two states,'" said David Makovsky, co-author with Dennis Ross, a special adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of the forthcoming book, "Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East."
Netanyahu and Obama agreed that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks should be expanded to settle disputes between Israel and Arab states. The Israeli leader said the Arab League's peace plan, which offers full normalization in exchange for Israel's complete withdrawal from all the territory it captured in the 1967 war "could be a start for negotiations."
Obama said his Middle East envoy George Mitchell will seek to broker "not a grudging peace, not a transitory peace, but a wide-ranging, regional peace."
Netanyahu said that in meeting Obama, he took a different approach than the one that got his relationship with former President Bill Clinton off to a rough start when he was prime minister 13 years ago.
"I didn't talk to him like I was the leader of a superpower," Netanyahu said at the briefing. "I spoke as the leader of a small country that faces real threats and wants to protect his people."