- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

President Obama on Monday welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of a future Palestinian state, saying it boosted prospects for new peace talks.

But U.S. officials distanced the administration from conditions outlined by the Israeli leader in a speech Sunday.

Mr. Obama said Mr. Netanyahu had demonstrated the “possibility we can restart serious talks.”

The president made his remarks after a White House meeting Monday afternoon with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

On Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, Mr. Obama said he was hesitant to analyze the situation based on commentaries but said, “Overall, I thought there was positive movement.”

Mr. Obama acknowledged that Mr. Netanyahu placed several conditions on his view of Palestinian statehood but noted, “That’s exactly what negotiations are supposed to be about.”

“Both sides are going to have to move in some politically difficult ways in order to achieve what is going to be in the long-term interests of the Israelis and the Palestinians and the international community,” he said.

For Israel, he said, “that means a cessation of settlements.” For the Palestinians, it means an “end to violence” against Israel.

Earlier in the day, administration officials declined to discuss Mr. Netanyahu’s conditions that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that their own state be demilitarized though they hinted they do not support them.

“In terms of what Prime Minister Netanyahu said yesterday, we have our [own] policy,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters. “But our goal remains the same: two states living side by side in security and prosperity.”

Asked whether Washington thinks the Palestinians should be required to accept Israel as a Jewish state, Mr. Kelly said: “The Palestinians need to recognize the right of Israel to exist and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Even though U.S. officials have called Israel a Jewish state for years, that is different from requiring it from the Palestinians as a condition for statehood, diplomats and analysts said.

The Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel, though not officially as a Jewish state, but the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist. Changing that position is one of the conditions international negotiators have set for Hamas’ inclusion in a Palestinian government.

U.S. and European officials said no conditions should be allowed to prejudge the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“If peace is to be achieved, much more needs to be done, without setting preconditions for negotiations,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. “Both parties now need to define what this Palestinian state would be and address all final-status issues, especially the status of Jerusalem, borders and refugees.”

The Palestinian Authority criticized Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, with negotiator Saeb Erekat saying the prime minister “wants to put us in a situation where he looks like he offered something and we said no.” The Palestinians, however, stopped short of refusing to resume negotiations.

Ziad J. Asali, founder and president of the American Task Force on Palestine, said [Note] that [/NOTE] Mr. Netanyahu “didn’t give much to the Palestinians in the way of dignity.”

“President Obama talked about mutual respect and interest in his Cairo speech” earlier this month, Mr. Asali said, “but there was not much respect for the Palestinians in Netanyahu’s speech or perhaps he intended to deprive us of dignity.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said the speech reflected “the deep and unyielding desire for peace that has defined the state of Israel since its inception” and called for Israel’s efforts to be “matched by sincere actions on the part the Palestinian Authority and Arab states.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the most powerful hard-liner in Mr. Netanyahu’s government, said the speech outlined “the balance between our aspirations for peace and the aspiration for security.”

Administration officials said they do not expect Mr. Netanyahu’s conditions to be major obstacles to negotiations, although they conceded the process will be long and difficult. They also attributed his demands to domestic politics, such as satisfying the concerns of his right-of-center governing coalition.

“Those will be prolonged negotiations, and reading too much in anyone’s speech is not a sound negotiating strategy,” said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Netanyahu tried to “move somewhat closer” to Mr. Obama’s position, but it is “not clear that there will be a solid Palestinian partner in this process,” Mr. Cordesman said.

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