WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama urged Israel and the Palestinians on Tuesday to resume direct peace talks by September and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised “concrete steps” to clear the way.
After a meeting considered as important for symbolism as for substance, Obama and Netanyahu appeared side-by-side seeking to project an image of unity after ties reached a low point in March over Israeli settlement expansion.
They agreed on the need to resume face-to-face peace talks and on their concern about Iran’s nuclear program, while avoiding past differences over U.S.-led peace efforts.
“We expect proximity talks to lead to direct talks,” Obama told reporters after an 80-minute session with Netanyahu.
Offering his first suggestion of a timetable to step up Middle East negotiations, Obama said he hoped direct discussions would get going “well before” a 10-month Israeli moratorium on new housing construction in West Bank settlements expires in September.
Meeting this timeframe will likely require serious U.S. arm-twisting on both sides.
John Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was too early to be certain but a September start for direct talks might be possible if Obama is intent on making it happen.
“He’s putting a lot of work into the issue,” Alterman said.
Netanyahu again called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet him one-on-one and move from the current U.S.-mediated “proximity talks” to direct negotiations on Palestinian statehood.
While there have been few signs the sides have narrowed the gap on longstanding disputes, Netanyahu pledged “concrete steps that could be done now — in the coming days, in the coming weeks — to move the peace process further along in a very robust way.” He gave no specifics.
Palestinian leaders say the slow-moving indirect talks have not progressed enough to justify a return to direct negotiations suspended since late 2008. They also remain wary of Israeli construction plans in East Jerusalem.
Responding cautiously after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, Palestinian officials said they were awaiting details of the steps Netanyahu intended to take.
Obama said he hoped mutual confidence-building moves would help ease the way to such negotiations.
A big question hanging over the fragile peace process is whether Netanyahu will extend the settlement expansion freeze that he accepted only under heavy pressure from Obama.
Its extension could widen cracks in Netanyahu’s fragile governing coalition, dominated by pro-settler parties including his own. Failure to do so would anger Palestinians.
It was a warmer White House welcome for Netanyahu than during his previous visit in March.
As journalists filed into the Oval Office, the two leaders sat side-by-side, leaning toward each other, chatting and smiling. They shook hands vigorously as camera shutters clicked and they later lunched together.
In what was widely viewed as a snub at the March meeting, there was no photo session and no meal for Netanyahu. The United States was angry that Israel announced plans to build 1,600 more homes for Jews in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting their country.
That chill has thawed recently with Obama shifting to a gentler tone and Netanyahu offering conciliatory gestures, including easing Israel’s land blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza after a deadly Israeli raid on an aid flotilla on May 31.
Seeking to turn the page in their relationship, Obama and Netanyahu rejected talk of a rift between their governments.
Both face domestic pressures and need to downplay their differences.
Obama is unlikely to risk another clash with Netanyahu with U.S. congressional elections looming in November and pro-Israel sentiment strong among American lawmakers and voters.
He publicly assured Netanyahu of his commitment to Israel’s “unique security requirements” and said he would never ask the Jewish state to take steps that would jeopardize its safety.
The U.S. administration sparked Israeli concerns in May by yielding to Arab demands at a U.N. meeting on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that the final document urge Israel to sign the pact. Israel is believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arms but will not confirm or deny possessing any.
Seeking to ease Israel’s worries, the White House said Obama would oppose efforts to single out Israel at a conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in September.
Adding to the chummy tone of the meeting, Netanyahu invited Obama to make his first presidential visit to Israel.
“I’m ready,” Obama responded. “Any time.”
No date was set.
The main focus of the talks was the peace process, central to Obama’s agenda for fixing U.S. ties with the Muslim world.
Obama praised Israel for showing restraint in recent months. But he sidestepped a question about whether he pressed Netanyahu to extend the settlement moratorium to ease the way for face-to-face negotiations and instead suggested a way around the thorny issue.
“My hope is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Obama said.
For his part, Netanyahu was keen to show the Israeli public that relations with their superpower ally were back on track. But he was also seen as reluctant to offer major concessions that would anger pro-settler parties in his fragile coalition.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Jeff Mason in Washington and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; Editing by John O'Callaghan