ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Maryland (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded an unusually low-key U.S. visit on Tuesday voicing confidence that his White House talks had helped secure Israel and promote peace efforts.
Netanyahu, whose ties with Washington have been strained by Israeli settlement expansion on occupied West Bank land where Palestinians seek statehood, met U.S. President Barack Obama with little notice and minimal media exposure on Monday evening.
“It was a very focused and very positive conversation,” he told reporters before departing. “This conversation dealt with the range of subjects that are important for the security of Israel, and for our joint efforts to advance peace.”
He did not elaborate, saying only: “I think this visit will turn out to have been very important.”
Mahmoud Abbas, the U.S.-sponsored Palestinian president, has accused Washington of failing to press Israel strongly for a freeze on settlements as mandated by a 2003 peace “road map” and says he has no desire to run for re-election in January.
This has put a further obstacle in the path of Obama’s bid to promote talks between Netanyahu’s rightist government and a Palestinian movement riven between Abbas’s secular rule and Islamist Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and opposes coexistence with the Jewish state.
Yuli Edelstein, an Israeli cabinet minister accompanying Netanyahu, said in a radio interview that the White House meeting had included a discussion of Iran, whose nuclear program and support for Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas are cited by Israel as obstacles to peacemaking.
Israel backs efforts by the United States and other powers to talk Tehran into curbing nuclear projects with bomb-making potential. But the Israelis, assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arms, have not ruled out preemptive military action.
Netanyahu has proposed temporarily limiting building in West Bank settlements to 3,000 houses. He has said East Jerusalem, also captured in a 1967 war and annexed as Israel’s capital in a move not recognized abroad, must be kept out of the equation.
“My goal is not negotiations for the sake of negotiations. My goal is to achieve a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians — and soon,” Netanyahu told a conference of American Jewish leaders on Monday.
“Let’s get on with it. Let’s move,” he said, an exhortation cautiously echoed by the Obama administration in easing its public pressure on Israel over the settlements.
Palestinians want to base their own future capital in Jerusalem and see the settlements — which the World Court has branded illegal — as an obstacle to territorial sovereignty.
Israel’s posture drew a rebuke from France, where Netanyahu stops on Wednesday for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Asked about the settlements in an interview, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: “There is a real difference of opinion on this (between Sarkozy and Netanyahu).”
Kouchner, who called for Abbas to stay on, deplored what he described as the ebbing of popular Israeli desires for peace.
“What really hurts me, and this shocks us, is that before there used to be a great peace movement in Israel,” he told France Inter radio.
“It seems to me, and I hope that I am completely wrong, that this desire has completely vanished, as though people no longer believe in it.”
Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Paris and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Cynthia Osterman