JERUSALEM – A key Palestinian official demanded Tuesday that President Barack Obama follow up his tough talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and force Israel to stop West Bank settlement construction and accept creation of a Palestinian state.
Without action to reinforce Obama’s words, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned the whole region could deteriorate into extremism and instability. That message was echoed by Netanyahu’s political rivals in Israel who called the meeting a failure and stressed that peace was impossible without establishing a Palestinian state.
Israeli government officials downplayed the differences between Obama and Netanyahu, but the two disagreed publicly about the key issues in Mideast diplomacy – how to deal with Iran, how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the relationship between the two.
Though the two professed friendship, the substance added up to the harshest public confrontation between an Israeli and American leader in nearly a decade, prompting Israeli commentators to warn of storm clouds on the horizon for the important relationship between the two countries.
Despite U.S. pressure, Netanyahu avoided committing to the idea of creating a Palestinian state and instead said the key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to halt Iran’s nuclear program, a sequencing disputed by Obama.
The U.S. president said progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace would undercut extremists and help control Iran. He also said Israel must live up to its commitment under the internationally backed “road map” peace plan to freeze West Bank settlement construction.
Erekat, who has been involved in various negotiation with Israel since 1991, welcomed Obama’s remarks but said he must force Israel to act to “turn a new page for this region.”
Failing to follow through “would mean closing the peace chapter and pushing the region into the hands of extremists,” Erekat said.
Underlining the volatility in the region, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a rocket at a house in the Israeli town of Sderot on Tuesday, causing extensive damage but no injuries. Rocket fire has diminished but not ceased since Israel’s punishing three-week offensive in Gaza earlier this year.
Several hours later, Israeli warplanes conducted four bombing runs on smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, said Palestinian security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, called the disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu “legitimate differences” and said he did not expect a crisis in relations with the United States, Israel’s closest and most important ally.
But the confrontation was the worst since 2001, when then-President George W. Bush faced off with the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, over Mideast peacemaking.
“From Israel’s point of view, we are ready without any further delay to open up a dialogue – extensive and serious one with the Palestinians,” Ayalon told The Associated Press. He said there should be no preconditions, and that Israel is ready to discuss economic, security and political issues.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he won’t restart discussions until the Israeli government commits to the creation of a Palestinian state and freezes West Bank settlement construction. Abbas is due at the White House next week for his first meeting with Obama.
“Anyone who thinks peace can be achieved without a Palestinian state at the end of the road is simply mistaken and misleading the public,” Meir Sheetrit, a leader in the Israeli opposition Kadima Party, told Israel Radio.
Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said Netanyahu’s refusal to endorse Palestinian independence did not mean that he won’t do so in the future.
“What’s more important than the terminology is the essence and the substance and, of course, the reality on the ground,” he said. “We are not ruling out any outcome.”
Restarting peace talks is also complicated by the split between the two main Palestinian factions that occurred after the militant Hamas group seized Gaza from Abbas’ Fatah faction nearly two years ago. Reinforcing the split, Abbas swore in a new Fatah-dominated government on Tuesday without any Hamas representation. It effectively only governs the West Bank.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum dismissed Obama’s tough statements to Netanyahu as misleading because the United States remains Israel’s main ally. Hamas is listed as a terror organization by the United States, Israel and the EU.
Nahum Barnea, an Israeli political commentator for the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot daily, said the West Bank settlement issue could turn into a sticking point with the Americans.
All U.S. administrations “have been unhappy with Israel over this issue,” he wrote. “The Obama administration differs from its predecessors only in that it sees this issue as a real problem.”