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Obama, Netanyahu strike conciliatory tone

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Barack Obama at a White House meeting Monday that he wants to resume negotiations with the Palestinians but stopped short of embracing the U.S. view of a fully sovereign Palestinian state.

The Israeli leader said he wants Palestinians to govern themselves, but “absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel.”

Netanyahu has long insisted that any Palestinian state forgo common trappings of statehood, including its own military, the power to control its borders and authority over electronic communications.

The first meeting between Obama and Netanyahu has been long anticipated, in part because of expectations of possible friction between the conservative Israeli leader and the U.S. president who has given Mideast peace a top priority.

Instead, the leaders exchanged praise and described shared goals. But it was clear after a four-hour meeting that they remain strongly divided on key issues.

For instance, Obama emphasized that Israel must halt growth of Jewish settlements. But Netanyahu said nothing on the subject in an exchange with reporters in the Oval Office.

Speaking later with Israeli reporters, Netanyahu indicated that Israeli action on settlements would depend on Palestinian cooperation in other areas, the Ynet news organization in Israel reported.

Obama, who has been under Israeli pressure to set a deadline for his diplomatic outreach to Iran, said for the first time that the administration would try to decide by the end of this year whether to continue the effort. By then, Obama said, “we should have some sense of whether these discussions are starting to yield serious benefits.”

Still, Obama insisted it would be only a general timetable. “That doesn’t mean every issue would be resolved at that point,” he said. “I don’t want to set an artificial deadline.”

Israelis and Americans charge Iran is striving for nuclear weapons; Tehran insists its nuclear effort is a peaceful civilian energy program.

Netanyahu after the meeting appeared to soften his insistence that the issue of Iran’s nuclear program take precedence over talks with Palestinians. He said Monday that the two issues should be tackled “in parallel.”

Obama, however, continued to argue that the question of a Palestinian settlement must take precedence. Settling that issue, he said, could help defuse any possible Iranian threat.

Obama prodded Israel to ease restrictions on allowing construction material for rebuilding to be brought into Gaza, following last December’s Israel military offensive there. Israel is limiting access out of fear that construction material could be used by militants.

The topic is a sensitive one that U.S. officials have sought to avoid discussing publicly. But Obama said that if Israel’s control over the borders is “so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel’s long-term security.”

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