- 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.”

The “all options” phrase is usually a nod in diplomatic terms to military action, but the Obama administration has warned Mr. Netanyahu’s government against a military strike against Iran.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did say after the meeting was over that “the president certainly has discussed in the past that we should keep all of our options open.”

Mr. Obama said talks with Iran should be given “a chance,” and made a direct linkage between progress on Middle East peace talks and the world’s ability to confront Iran effectively.

“To the extent that we can make peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat,” he said.

Mr. Netanyahu conceded Mr. Obama’s point but countered with a different linkage.

“Conversely, if Iran went nuclear, it would threaten the progress towards peace and destabilize the entire area, and threaten [the] existing peace agreement,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

And the 59-year old Israeli leader also gave a subtly couched rebuttal to Mr. Obama, who is 12 years his junior, [Note] following [/NOTE] after the president’s joke that Mr. Netanyahu “has both youth and wisdom.”

“You’re very kind to be calling me young, but I’m more than half a century old,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “And in my 59 years in the life of the Jewish state, there’s never been a time when Arabs and Israelis see a common threat the way we see it today and also see the need to join together in working towards peace while simultaneously defending ourselves against this common threat.”

The Israeli leader did praise Mr. Obama as “a great leader of the world” and said he and the president “see exactly eye to eye” on the need for progress on peace talks “simultaneously” with negotiations between Iran and the European-led group of countries known as the “P-5 plus one,” which comprises the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

Mr. Netanyahu also praised Mr. Obama during the meeting with their respective advisers, according to one White House official who was in the room.

“No can say this president is not focused,” Mr. Netanyahu said, according to the official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak about private meetings.

Mr. Netanyahu has yet to embrace the idea of a separate Palestinian state, a pillar of the road map laid out by President [Note] George W. Bush in 2002 and also called for by Mr. Obama.

But Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said earlier this month that “Israel has to work towards a two-state solution.”

At the White House, however, Mr. Netanyahu gave only a tepid, highly conditional embrace of the idea.

“The Palestinians will have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, will have to also enable Israel to have the means to defend itself. And if those conditions are met, Israel’s security conditions are met, and there’s recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, its permanent legitimacy, then I think we can envision an arrangement where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side in dignity, in security, and in peace,” he said.

In remarks to the Israeli press after the meetings, Mr. Netanyahu claimed “major success” in obtaining from Mr. Obama a deadline for the Iran negotiations and a guarantee that Israel’s own nuclear program would not be a bargaining chip in future talks with Iran.

He said he reached a “great understanding on Iran” with Mr. Obama.

“There is a shared recognition that Iran has to be countered,” he said.

After their private meeting in the Oval Office, their top advisers joined Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu for another hour of talks. Reporters entered for a 34-minute question-and-answer session, and then the two leaders and their staffs shared lunch in the Old Family Dining Room, just off the State Dining Room in the main wing of the White House.

Mr. Gibbs laughed off suggestions that Mr. Obama appeared to be irritated at the end of his [Note] press [/NOTE] news conference with Mr. Netanyahu.

“If things are going so badly, if there’s so much friction and so much bad body language, why would one stay in there a half an hour longer?” Mr. Gibbs said.

Mr. Obama will host two of the other main players in Middle East peace talks [-] Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on May 26 and May 28, respectively.

On June 4, Mr. Obama will travel to Cairo for a highly anticipated speech that will focus on U.S. relations with the Muslim world that will in some form address the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat, which has several major regional powers such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan distressed over the possibility.

•#Eli Lake, Nicholas Kralev and Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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