Obama urges Netanyahu for decisions on peace

Israeli date showed construction of new Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank increased by 123.7 percent last year

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Tough decisions are needed in order to make peace with the Palestinians, U.S. President Barack Obama told Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu in talks at the White House on Monday, Agence France-Presse reported.

But the Israeli prime minister insisted the Jewish state had done its part for peace, while the Palestinians had not.

However, hours before Netanyahu met with Obama, starts on new settlement building in the occupied West Bank increased by 123.7 percent last year, Israeli government data showed.

Monday's data showed work began on 2,534 settlement housing units in 2013 compared with 1,133 the year before.

Unconfirmed reports suggest Washington will demand a partial freeze on construction in isolated settlements outside the major West Bank blocs that Israel hopes to retain in any peace deal.

But Netanyahu has pledged not to succumb to pressure for concessions which in his view run contrary to Israel's needs.

Netanyahu arrived in a large black 4x4 shortly before 1:45 p.m. (1845 GMT) as temperatures plummeted and a major snowstorm blanketed Washington.

Obama is expected to press Netanyahu to accept a framework for extending the negotiations beyond a late April deadline, although the Israeli leader has pledged to resist any pressure.

Israel and Palestinian negotiators have conducted seven months of U.S.-led direct peace talks, which have made little progress.

Slamming Iran

During his visit, Netanyahu said preventing Iran from obtaining a military nuclear capacity is the “greatest challenge” for the United States and Israel.

Netanyahu came to Washington keen to impress his concerns on Obama about the ongoing talks between world powers and Iran in a bid to roll back its contested nuclear program.

Before the visit

Ahead of Netanyahu visit to Washington on Monday, Obama directed a message to him that time was running out for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In an interview on Thursday in the Oval Office with Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama said that he would warn Netanyahu that his country could face a bleak future if he refuses to support a U.S.-drafted framework agreement for peace with the Palestinians.

He said his message to Netanyahu will be this: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”

He then said that 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." He added, "It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”

Obama said: “There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices, 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?”

On the subject of Middle East peace, Obama told Goldberg that the U.S.'s friendship with Israel is undying, but he also issued what the interviewer took to be a “veiled threat.”

The president said: “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,” Obama said. “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.”

Boarding his flight to the U.S. capital, Netanyahu, who has had a strained relationship with Obama, said that Israel knew how to resist pressure and that he intended to stand firm on what he termed his country's "vital interests."

Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to persuade Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a framework deal that would enable troubled land-for-peace negotiations to continue beyond an April target date for a final accord. Abbas is due at the White House on March 17.

(With AFP and Reuters)