Blame for the morass in the Middle East peace process lies squarely with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Sunday, hours after US President Barack Obama was quoted saying that Washington would be hard-pressed to defend Israel should talks fail.
Netanyahu made the remarks upon landing in Washington, where he was to meet Monday with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who is managing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu and Kerry will also speak at the conference of the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby in the capital.
“The tango in the Middle East needs at least three,” Netanyahu said in a statement to the press. “For years there have been two — Israel and the US. Now it needs to be seen if the Palestinians are also present,” he said.
“In any case, in order for us to have an agreement, we must uphold our vital interests. I have proven that I do so, in the face of all pressures and all the turmoil, and I will continue to do so here as well,” he said.
The prime minister also told Channel 2 that he wanted a peace deal, “but it must be a good deal.”
Netanyahu’s response came hours after Bloomberg published an interview with Obama, during which the US president stressed that time was running out for Israel to achieve a peace deal.
Obama also said that Abbas was, in fact, a true peace partner who “has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve” the conflict.
However, if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach,” Obama said, adding that he believed Israel’s prime minister had the capacity to rally his citizens behind an agreement..
“There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” he said.
Obama also cautioned that Israel can expect to face international isolation and possible sanctions from countries and companies across the world if Netanyahu fails to endorse a framework agreement with the Palestinians and engages in more settlement building.
“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time — if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama said.
Netanyahu will reportedly seek to steer the conversation away from peace talks and toward dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
Before boarding his plane to the US, the prime minister said he had rejected pressures in the past and would continue to do so.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, who accompanied Netanyahu to the US, was more blunt in rebuffing Obama’s comments.
“We want to promote a political settlement; however, are justifiably concerned about our national security — there is no reason to pressure Israel. We are only caring for Israel’s most fundamental needs,” he said.
Direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which began last July with the goal of reaching a deal within nine months, have made no visible progress.
Kerry is now focused on getting the two sides to agree on a framework proposal which would extend the deadline until the year’s end.
Although the document has not yet been made public, it is understood to be a non-binding proposal laying out guidelines for negotiating the central issues of the conflict, such as borders, security, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The proposal, or its outline, is likely to be presented to Netanyahu this week and to Abbas on March 17 when he meets Obama at the White House.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Obama’s Ominous Warning to Israel
if It Doesn’t Reach a Peace Deal
President Barack Obama is warning Israel of a bleak future characterized by international isolation and less security should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not agree to a U.S.-proposed framework peace agreement.
Speaking to Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama suggested that time was running out for Israel to agree to a deal or else otherwise face international isolation and the prospect of losing its Jewish majority.
Goldberg wrote that he took Obama’s remarks “to be a veiled threat” that the administration might not be able to continue to defend Israel at the United Nations and other international forums where the Jewish state faces attacks on its policies.
Obama called the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security “rock solid” and “not subject to periodic policy differences.”
“But what I do believe is that if you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time — if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama said.
Responding hours before the two leaders were set to meet in Washington on Monday, Netanyahu suggested the Palestinians are to blame.
“The tango in the Middle East needs at least three,” Netanyahu said. “For years there have been two — Israel and the U.S. Now it needs to be seen if the Palestinians are also present.”
He added, “In any case, in order for us to have an agreement, we must uphold our vital interests. I have proven that I do so, in the face of all pressures and all the turmoil, and I will continue to do so here as well.”
Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 News that he favored reaching a peace deal, “but it must be a good deal.”
Obama referred to the building of homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as “aggressive” and further warned that international isolation could make Israel less safe.
“[I]n today’s world, where power is much more diffuse, where the threats that any state or peoples face can come from non-state actors and asymmetrical threats, and where international cooperation is needed in order to deal with those threats, the absence of international goodwill makes you less safe,” Obama said. “The condemnation of the international community can translate into a lack of cooperation when it comes to key security interests. It means reduced influence for us, the United States, in issues that are of interest to Israel. It’s survivable, but it is not preferable.”
Though seemingly critical of Netanyahu not endorsing as of yet the proposal being brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, the president expressed sympathy with Israeli concerns about strife in its immediate neighborhood.
“You have the chaos that’s been swirling around the Middle East. People look at what’s happening in Syria. They look at what’s happening in Lebanon. Obviously, they look at what’s happening in Gaza. And understandably a lot of people ask themselves, ‘Can we afford to have potential chaos at our borders, so close to our cities?’ So he [Netanyahu] is dealing with all of that, and I get that,” Obama said.
“[T]here comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” Obama said. “Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”
Besides a theoretical discussion of border adjustments that could place a limited number of Arab citizens of Israel under Palestinian Authority control, peace talks have not focused on Israeli-Arabs. Israel’s Arab citizens are represented in the nation’s parliament, as diplomats and as high-ranking military commanders.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz also responded to Obama’s warning, saying: “We want to promote a political settlement; however, are justifiably concerned about our national security. There is no reason to pressure Israel. We are only caring for Israel’s most fundamental needs.”