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Obama urges Middle East talks
US president holds talks with Israeli PM and applauds him for easing Gaza siege.
Last Modified: 06 Jul 2010 18:35 GMT
There was bitterness after Netanyahu's 
frosty visit in March [File: EPA]

Barack Obama, the US president, has said he wants direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to restart before a partial freeze on the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land expires in September. 

Obama was speaking after hosting Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, at the White House for talks that focused on restarting Middle East peace negotiations and tackling Iran's nuclear enrichment programme.

Tuesday's meeting came as the two leaders sought to downplay recent tensions between their countries over Israel's continuing construction of settlements, which is illegal under international law.

"We expect proximity talks to lead to direct talks," Obama said, adding that he believed Netanyahu would "take risks for peace", and praising him for lifting import restrictions on the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu said the two men had held "excellent" discussions and that it was "high time" that direct talks with the Palestinians restarted, but he did not signal whether he would make new concessions to achieve this aim. 

Settlement stalemate

The meeting was considerably warmer than the last time the two men met, when Netanyahu was reportedly denied the privileges normally granted to visiting foreign dignitaries, including the ritual hand-shake photograph.

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from Jerusalem, said that settlements remain at the heart of the stalemate between the two sides. 

in depth

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  Map of East Jerusalem housing plan
  Focus:
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  Jerusalem's religious heart
  Strain on US-Israel ties
  Q&A: Jewish settlements
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  Programmes:
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"There's a lot of domestic pressure on the prime minister not to make any more concessions on settlements at this time," she said.

"The Palestinian position is very clear: building on their land while they are talking simply shows that the Israelis are not serious about peace."

Rosalind Jordan, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Washington, said that the meeting had been considered extremely important by the Obama administration.

"There is universal belief here in Washington that this is a chance to reset the relationship between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu administration," she said.

"The Obama administration's overarching goal is getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to direct talks." 

Netanyahu had been expected to tell Obama that he wants to restart direct talks with the Palestinian leadership.

"I am ready to meet [Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas today and tomorrow and the next day at any place," he said last week.

But so far he has not made the necessary concessions to tempt the Palestinians back the negotiating table.

Direct negotiations have been frozen since December 2008, when Israel launched a 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians.

With mid-term elections scheduled in the US for November, Obama and other politicians are keen to appear close with Israeli leaders, as Democrats draw significant support from pro-Israeli groups in American domestic politics.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, met on Monday where they discussed "continuation of security co-ordination and economic co-ordination".

Both sides, however, said that the talks were separate from any direct or indirect negotiations on the peace process.

The March visit was soured by Israel's announcement of plans for 1,600 new housing units in occupied East Jerusalem during a visit by Joe Biden, the US vice-president, a move Washington called "insulting".

Settlement issue

Fawaz Gerges, a professor at London School of Economics, agreed that Israeli settlements remained the biggest stumbling block to restarting talks.

"This Israeli government has not given the international community, the American government or the Palestinian authority any reason to believe they are serious about the peace process," Gerges told Al Jazeera.  

Yossi Shain, a profesor from Tel Aviv University, agreed that settlements were crucial, but told Al Jazeera that all parties must move on and recognise Israeli concessions on the issue.  

"Netanyahu is the democratically elected leader of Israel, he already froze settlements and has to move ahead with Mr Obama," he said.

"Many voices in America now are saying Israel represents a strategic liability rather than a security asset for the United States."

Fawaz Gerges, LSE professor

Last November, the Israeli government announced a 10-month suspension of new settlement building in the West Bank, but the move failed to bring the Palestinians, who want a complete cessation of settlement construction, to the negotiating table. 

Netanyahu and Obama also discussed Iran, where the US has recently imposed new sanctions.

"Netanyahu is trying to convince the president that the Iranian threat tops any kind of a peace settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Gerges said. 

"This has been a consistent Israeli strategy for the last two years.

"What the Americans now are saying is, and this is a very important point, is that what happens in the Israeli-Palestinian theatre affects the national security of United States.

"Many voices in America now are saying Israel represents a strategic liability rather than a security asset for the United States."

Shain said that the Palestinian conflict was only peripherially linked to the Iranian issue and was one area where the Israeli and US administration were currently in agreement.

"We have seen tremendous rapprochement on this [Iran issue]," he said.

"There is agreement on this issue. The sanctions that were imposed by the congress and signed by the president are certainly in line with the Israeli demand."  

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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