Obama, Netanyahu Focus On Middle East, Iran

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President Obama and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold talks at the White House, with the focus on Middle East peace-making and Iran's suspect nuclear program.


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

First this hour, today President Obama focused on the conflict in the Middle East in a meeting with the new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They met at the White House and they discussed ways to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the two leaders tried their best to minimize their differences in front of the cameras.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The pre-lunch talks lasted longer than expected but the two men clearly did not want to appear to be on a collision course in their ideas about Middle East peacemaking. Benjamin Netanyahu did not utter the words two state solution, Israel and Palestine living side by side, rather, he simply said he's ready to resume talks immediately, adding the terminology will take care of itself if there's progress.

Mr. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Prime Minister, Israel): I want to make it clear that we don't want to govern the Palestinians. We want to live in peace with them. We want them to govern themselves absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel. And for this there has to be a clear goal, the goal has to be an end to conflict.

KELEMEN: President Obama tried a bit of flattery to get off on the right foot with the Israeli leader, pointing out that Netanyahu has been prime minister before and now has a chance to bring about, quote, "historic peace."

President BARACK OBAMA: I have great confidence in Prime Minister Netanyahu's political skills but also his historical vision. And his recognition that during the years that he is prime minister this second go around, he is probably going to be confronted with as many important decisions about the long-term strategic interest of Israel as any prime minister that we've seen in a very long time. And I have great confidence that he's going to rise to the occasion.

KELEMEN: In their joint public appearance, the two men stayed focused on the big picture, not the details. President Obama only touched on the issue of Israeli settlement expansion and wasn't asked about the latest news that Israel will built 20 new houses on a former army outpost in the West Bank.

Pres. OBAMA: We have to make progress on settlements. The settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That's a difficult issue. I recognize that. But it's an important one and it has to be addressed.

KELEMEN: When it came to Iran, another potential source of conflict between the two men, Prime Minister Netanyahu said he and President Obama are thinking about the issue in the same way with the same goals in mind.

Mr. NETANYAHU: We don't see closely on this. We see exactly eye to eye on this, that we want to move simultaneously and in parallel on two fronts. The front of peace and the front of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities.

KELEMEN: Referring to Iran, Netanyahu said he doesn't remember a time when Arabs and Israelis see a common threat the way they see it today. But Israelis have been worried about President Obama's outreach to Iran. President Obama told reporters that he doesn't want to set an artificial timeline on that but he did say that he thinks he should be able to gauge by the end of the year whether or not Iran is moving in the right direction.

Pres. OBAMA: We're not going to have talks forever. We're not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction, while Iran proceeds with developing a nuclear - and deploying a nuclear weapon. That's something obviously Israel is concerned about but it's also an issue of concern for the United States and for the international community as a whole.

KELEMEN: He held out the prospects for tougher sanctions against Iran but made clear he's giving Iranians some time to get through their presidential elections in June. President Obama still has some key players to meet before announcing any more concrete steps to promote Arab-Israeli peace. Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, is to visit the White House later this month, as is Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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