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TEL AVIV/RAMALLAH — Israel is ready to open peace talks with Syria immediately and without preconditions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday after talks with US President Barack Obama. The offer followed Obama’s first White House meeting with the Israeli leader, who said he agreed on the need to widen the peace process across the Arab world but stopped short of embracing the declared US goal of Israel accepting there should be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“There was agreement that we must immediately launch peace talks,” Netanyahu told reporters at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport after returning from talks in Washington. “I said I was ready to immediately open peace talks with the Palestinians, by the way, with the Syrians as well, of course, without preconditions,” Netanyahu added.
“But I made it clear that any peace settlement must find a solution to Israel’s security needs.”
US officials, meanwhile, told the Palestinian Authority (PA) that any new American peace plan for the Middle East would call for establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Official PA sources told Israeli Ynet news yesterday that the American officials also assured them that the new plan would include cessation of all settlement construction in West Bank as well as setting a clear timetable for the realization of the two-state solution and a commitment that the permanent peace agreement would be negotiated according to the understanding set by the Arab Peace Initiative.
An aide to Netanyahu said earlier yesterday that media focus on the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, favored by President Barack Obama, is “childish and stupid.” The aide, Ron Dermer, spoke to The Associated Press after Netanyahu and his entourage arrived home from Washington.
He denied that he had called the two-state concept itself childish and stupid, as he was quoted earlier as saying as an anonymous official briefing reporters on the plane carrying Netanyahu home.
Obama made it clear that the US backs creation of a Palestinian state, but Netanyahu has not endorsed the concept. “I told reporters that the focus by the media on the concept of solving the Israel-Palestinian issue through a two-state solution is childish and stupid, but I deny that I described the idea that way,” Dermer said.
During his talks in Washington, Netanyahu constantly tried to shift emphasis away from the Palestinian issue toward the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
He and Obama publicly disagreed about the relative weight of the two issues. In a brief statement at Israel’s airport on his return, Netanyahu again began with Iran, mentioning the Palestinian issue as third on his list.
Referring to his talks with Obama, Netanyahu said, “There was an agreement that we need to immediately begin the peace process, I said I am willing to open peace talks with the Palestinians, by the way with the Syrians as well, of course without preconditions, but I made it clear that in any peace agreement there must be a solution to Israel’s special security needs.”
The United States on Tuesday stepped up pressure on Netanyahu to halt Jewish settlements. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a press conference to drive home the US position on settlements in the West Bank, and the issue was raised directly with Netanyahu by Sen. John Kerry during a visit to the US Congress.
“The president (Barack Obama) was very clear yesterday in his statement that he wants to see a stop to the settlements,” Clinton told reporters.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian rift widened yesterday after a new government, again headed by Western-backed Salam Fayyad took power, with Hamas categorically rejecting the Cabinet.
Fayyad and the new ministers took the oath of office in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Tuesday.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News – May 21, 2009
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