Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Netanyahu Heads for Paris After White House Meeting

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flies to Paris today in a bid to round up international support as Middle East peace efforts flounder and his country stands accused of war crimes in Gaza. Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama at the White House late yesterday after telling a gathering of North American Jewish organizations that he wants to resume peace talks immediately with the Palestinian Authority. The Obama administration, in a statement, said the president reaffirmed the “strong commitment” of the U.S. to Israel’s security and that the two leaders discussed Iran and “how to move forward on Middle East peace.” Netanyahu left the White House without making any public remarks. He canceled a briefing about the Obama meeting for reporters early today before leaving for France, where he is scheduled to meet tomorrow with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The shroud of secrecy over the Obama talks was untypical. On most White House visits by Israeli prime ministers, the president invites reporters into the Oval Office for questions and both sides hold briefings after the meeting. Hours before his talks with Obama, Netanyahu said in his speech to the Jewish Federations of North America that he hopes to reach a permanent peace treaty to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I say to Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority: Let us seize the moment to reach an historic agreement, let us begin talks immediately,” Netanyahu said. The prime minister reiterated his call, made in June, for the establishment of a Palestinian state so long as it is demilitarized. Netanyahu’s visit to Washington follows a trip by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Israel during which she tried to revive a peace process intended to lead to Palestinian statehood.

Instead, she got mired in disputes over Israeli settlements. In Jerusalem, Clinton publicly praised Netanyahu’s proposal to limit settlement expansion to the completion of about 2,500 new homes, calling the offer “unprecedented.” Palestinians criticized Clinton’s remarks, recalling that Obama had earlier demanded a total freeze on settlement construction as a precursor for resuming peace talks. Abbas said on Nov. 5 that he no longer wants to run for re-election in January and aides expressed concern the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may erupt again in violence. Netanyahu, 60, said he would work for a durable peace with the Palestinians, and said Israel is willing to make concessions as long as they don’t compromise its security. “With the support of the United States, peace can become a reality,” Netanyahu said. Turning to Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu said, “We must stand together to stop Iran from realizing its nuclear ambitions.” At the speech, police ejected a protester who stood up and shouted: “Shame on you! Peace for Israel and Gaza!” Netanyahu answered by quipping that he received a better reception at the United Nations, where he spoke in September. The General Assembly last week overwhelmingly approved the so-called Goldstone report, which judged that Israel and the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, committed possible war crimes during a three-week conflict that ended early this year. Netanyahu thanked the U.S. for opposing the “twisted” report that he said deprives Israel “of our right to defend ourselves.” Before Obama’s session with Netanyahu, the president and members of his senior staff held a private reception at the White House with members of the Jewish organizations.