- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

President Obama on Monday said Iran must show progress by the end of this year toward curbing its nuclear program, during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House that revealed stark disagreement and some tension between the two charismatic leaders.

During one of the most high-stakes meetings of Mr. Obama’s young presidency, he and the recently elected Israeli leader did their best to portray a united front on the issues of confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and of Middle East peace talks.

But it was clear from their public statements that the two men, whose private one-on-one meeting went 30 minutes beyond the hour scheduled and was described by one high-ranking White House official as “warm” and “intense” were engaged in a push and pull over Washington’s desire for more movement from Jerusalem [Note] towards [/NOTE] toward peace negotiations, and Jerusalem’s demand that Washington ensure that Iran be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama’s[‘] call for the Israeli government to stop the construction of new settlements in Palestinian territories came hours after the Israel government was reported to be moving ahead with new construction permits for a settlement in the West Bank, though some in the government disputed the reports.

Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, made clear that his intent to engage in the peace process is predicated on a number of actions by the Palestinians, as well as by the United States, as it relates to Iran.

“We’re prepared to move with the president and with others in the Arab world, if they’re prepared to move as well,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Mr. Obama, who is viewed by some as a less Israel-friendly president than his predecessors, went out of his way to affirm the U.S.-Israel alliance and to talk tough about Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Obama, sitting next to Mr. Netanyahu in the Oval Office, referred to the “extraordinary relationship, the special relationship between the United States and Israel” and called the Jewish state “the only true democracy in the Middle East.”

He also issued a number of stern warnings to Tehran, cautioning Iran against taking his administration’s willingness to engage in direct talks as a sign of weakness.

“The history, at least, of negotiations with Iran is that there is a lot of talk, but not always action that follows,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re not going to have talk forever.”

“It is not in their interest to pursue a nuclear weapon and [EnLeader] they should change course,” he said.

The president said that by the end of this year it should be clear whether talks with Iran are “making any serious progress,” noting that the country’s approaching elections make it problematic to engage now.

A senior administration official said the timeline, however, could be even shorter.

“If there’s no response by September-October, we have a problem,” said the official, who asked not to be named to avoid contradicting the president.

Mr. Netanyahu grasped for an even stronger commitment from Mr. Obama regarding Iran, thanking him for “leaving all options on the table,” when in fact Mr. Obama had said only that he was “not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious.”

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