WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Barack Obama on Monday that “Israel has been doing its part” to forge peace, but that it’s been met with “incessant Palestinian incitement.”
The tough talk came as the administration is expected soon to offer a framework for peace talks. Obama thanked Netanyahu for participating in what he called “very lengthy and painstaking negotiations” with Secretary of State John Kerry over the details.
Obama — who in an interview before the meeting with Netanyahu suggested that the window for peace talks is closing — said he believes “that ultimately it is still possible” to create a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine.
“But it’s difficult and it requires compromise on all sides,” Obama said.
Netanyahu proclaimed Israel has taken “unprecedented steps” to advance peace, including vacating cities, uprooting settlements and releasing terrorist prisoners.
“And when you look at what we got in return, it’s been scores of suicide bombings, thousands of rockets on our cities fired from the areas we vacated, and just incessant Palestinian incitement against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “So Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t.”
Obama will host Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on March 17, and Netanyahu said it’s “about time they recognize a nation-state for the Jewish people. We’ve only been there for 4,000 years.”
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said Netanyahu is addressing at least four audiences and wants to deliver a message to the White House as it decides on a framework that Israel won’t cede ground.
“The question now will be what President Obama and John Kerry do next,” Kurtzer said. “Are they going to go ahead and put forward a serious framework or take time out for a pause, believing the gap is too wide?”
Obama also said he has an “absolute commitment” to make sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and said the two would discuss how talks “can potentially at least lead to a solution that ensures that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon.”
Netanyahu called preventing Iran from securing a nuclear weapon “the greatest challenge” and said he believed the goal could be achieved if Iran is prevented from enriching uranium and fully dismantles its military nuclear installations.
The White House has pushed for negotiations with Iran, urging Congress to hold off on new sanctions until diplomacy has been given a chance.
If the talks succeed, Netanyahu said, “I can tell you that no country has a greater stake in this than Israel.” But, he repeated that he’d “do whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state.”
Edward Djerejian, founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, noted that Netanyahu’s remarks on an acceptable Iranian nuclear system go beyond the negotiations.
“The point that Netanyahu is making that Iran has to be prevented from enriching uranium completely is something that Iranians have made clear that’s a bottom line they would not accept,” he said.
The meeting between the two came as Netanyahu is in town to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference, which last month reversed course and urged that a vote on new sanctions on Iran be delayed as diplomatic talks continue.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who addressed AIPAC on Monday, called on the Senate to pass new bipartisan sanctions against Iran that would take effect if negotiations fail.
“Iran’s rulers must know that the only alternative to compromising on our terms is even more crippling sanctions or worse,” said McCain, who said he doubted that the negotiations would succeed.
He accused the Obama administration’s “feckless foreign policy” of emboldening U.S. enemies — including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who three days ago began moving troops into Ukraine.
Obama said in the meeting with Netanyahu that Russia is “on the wrong side of history” and said the U.S. is examining a series of economic and diplomatic steps to isolate Russia if it doesn’t pull back military troops from Ukraine.
Netanyahu noted the conflict when he thanked Obama for meeting with him despite “a few other pressing matters on his plate.”
Obama has tried to pivot to other areas of the globe, but the ongoing unrest in the Middle East has drawn his attention back. He will meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on a visit to that country next month. Senior officials in Saudi Arabia have complained about what they view as an American retrenchment after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the White House has said the visit is to “advance a range of common interests related to Gulf and regional security, peace in the Middle East, countering violent extremism, and other issues of prosperity and security.”
Kerry, who has been shuttling between the U.S. and the Middle East for months in hopes of reaching a potential agreement on a two-state peace solution in Israel, attended the Oval Office meeting and looked grave when Netanyahu said the Palestinians need to step up.
Obama, in an interview published ahead of his meeting with Netanyahu, said that he fears time is running out on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
“With each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis can accept and the Palestinians can accept,” Obama said in the interview with Bloomberg View, warning that there’s “a genuine sense on the part of a lot of countries out there that this issue continues to fester, is not getting resolved, and that nobody is willing to take the leap to bring it to closure.”