WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he is ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians immediately, but any agreement is contingent on their acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. His comments came after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, who bluntly told the Israeli leader it was time to get back to the negotiating table.
Netanyahu and Obama met for more than two hours at the White House and focused on Mideast peace talks, Iran's nuclear program and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Obama said he expects a positive response from his diplomatic outreach to Iran on stopping its nuclear program by the end of the year. The president said the United States wanted to bring Iran into the world community, but declared "we're not going to have talks forever."
At the same time, Obama said bluntly that it was important that Netanyahu, a hardliner on peace negotiations with the Palestinians, to restart the stalled Mideast peace talks. While his language was gentle, Obama's words were notable nonetheless for being made in public.
"We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the prime minister that he has a historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure," Obama said. "That means that all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed to."
Added Obama: "I think that there is no reason why we should not seize this opportunity and this moment."
Netanyahu said he was ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians immediately but said any agreement depended on their acceptance of Israel's right to exist. It was not immediately clear in the way he phrased the response whether Netanyahu was demanding that as a precondition for talks.
"There's never been a time when Arabs and Israelis see a common threat the way we see it today," Netanyahu said, speaking of a sense of urgency felt throughout the Arab world about Iran's nuclear program.
On Iran, Obama declared a readiness to seek deeper international sanctions against the Islamic Republic if it shuns U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program. Washington and many key allies contend Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, an allegation the Iranians deny.
"The important thing is to make sure there is a clear timetable, at which point we say these talks don't seem to be making any clear progress," Obama said. "If that hasn't taken place I think the international community will see that it's ... Iran itself that is isolating themselves."
Netanyahu did not respond publicly to Obama's comment that Israel must stop expanding Jewish settlements in West Bank. He also refused again to say he was ready to negotiate a so-called two-state solution to the nearly 60-year dispute with the Palestinians.
The plan, endorsed by the United States and other parties pushing for peace between the historic foes, calls for establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
Palestinians offered praise for Obama but expressed disappointment with Netanyahu's remarks.
Netanyahu "did not mention a commitment to a two-state solution, and we need to see American action against this policy," said Nail Abu Redden, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visits the White House on June 28.
"Mr. Netanyahu failed to mention the two-state solution, signed agreements and the commitment to stop settlement activity," added Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, in a similar assessment.
"He said he wants the Palestinians to govern themselves. The question to Mr. Netanyahu is, 'How can I govern myself while your occupation continues everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza, and how can I govern myself under your wall, roadblocks and settlement activities?"' Erekat said.