, WASHINGTON, May 19 – President Barack Obama held intense first talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that laid bare differing approaches on Iran and the US goal of a Palestinian state.
In blunt comments after talks that stretched past the three-hour mark, Netanyahu offered talks "immediately" with the Palestinians but stopped short of endorsing Obama’s call for a two-state solution.
Both leaders also dwelt on Iran, with Obama defending his diplomatic outreach strategy and an impassioned Netanyahu voicing his fears before reporters that a nuclear-armed Tehran would pose a mortal threat to Israel.
The crucial first meeting between two leaders new to power was Obama’s deepest plunge yet into the labyrinth of Middle East peacemaking, which contrasted with his predecessor George W. Bush’s initial hands-off approach.
Obama said after the talks, which included a 90-minute one-on-one session, that he was "confident" progress on the Israel-Palestinian question was possible, praising Netanyahu’s historic vision.
All international parties had an interest in achieving "a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security," he said, pointedly referring to Israel as a "Jewish state."
Obama also said Palestinians would have to do a "better job" in providing security guarantees and called on the Arab states to be "bolder" in moving towards normalization with Israel.
Netanyahu, who described the talks as "extraordinarily friendly," did not use the words "Palestinian state" but also warned against obsessing on "terminology."
"I want to make it clear that we don’t want to govern the Palestinians — we want to live in peace with them," Netanyahu said.
"We want them to govern themselves absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel," he said, though he told Obama that he was ready to open talks with the Palestinians "immediately."
The creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel has been at the basis of all peace initiatives over the past nearly two decades.
The Palestinians slammed Netanyahu for failing to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.
"By failing to endorse the two-state solution, Benjamin Netanyahu missed yet another opportunity to show himself to be a genuine partner for peace," top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in a statement.
"Calling for negotiations without a clearly defined end-goal, offers only the promise of more process, not progress," he said.
There were also signs of division between the two men on the issue of the construction and expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
"Settlements have to be stopped," Obama said, hours after Israel issued construction tenders for the West Bank settlement of Maskiot.
The shadow of Iran’s nuclear program, which the West and Israel believe is a disguised weapons drive, also loomed over the talks.
The US president said he expected little headway in diplomacy with Tehran until after Iranian elections in June, and he declined to lay out a firm timeline for progress.
But he added: "We are not going to have talks forever," addressing Israel’s fear that Iran will prolong diplomacy for months just to give it more time to build nuclear weapons.
"My expectation would be that if we begin discussions soon, shortly after the Iranian elections, we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction," Obama said.
Obama also rejected a suggestion by a reporter that his offer of talks with Iran could be exploited by the government in Tehran.
"Its not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness," Obama said.
Netanyahu, speaking separately to reporters later, welcomed Obama’s remarks, but insisted "Israel reserves its right to defend itself".
"I hope the president’s plan succeeds," he said. "What is important is the commitment to the result — that Iran does not develop military nuclear capability."
N etanyahu later met with Obama’s National Security Advisor James Jones before having a working dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His visit was the latest in a string of visits of Middle Eastern leaders to the White House in the run-up to Obama’s long-awaited address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4.
Obama has already hosted Jordan’s King Abdullah II and will meet Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in the next few weeks.