In their fifth meeting in just over a year, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed the special, "unbreakable" relationship between their two countries and committed to moving forward on the Middle East peace process, though they dodged reporters' questions about a freeze on Israeli settlement construction due to expire in September.
The settlement freeze could be a major sticking point to advancing from proximity talks -- in which U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling back and forth between the two sides -- to the kind of direct talks that will be necessary to construct a plan that would lead to what Obama described as "two states living side by side in peace and security."
Palestinian officials have said the freeze on settlements must be extended before direct talks can begin, but Netanyahu is under intense political pressure not to extend the freeze and could even lose his majority in parliament if he does. Obama spoke repeatedly about "confidence building" measures that could help ensure progress toward peace and suggested direct talks could begin long before the freeze expires.
"I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace; I think he's willing to take risks for peace and during our conversation he once again reaffirmed his willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians," Obama said, going on to say that now more than ever it was time to seize the vision of peace even though it would be hard work. "There are going to need to be a whole set of confidence-building measures to make sure that people are serious and that we're sending a signal to the region that this isn't just more talk and more process without action."
Arab states must be supportive of peace, because peace will not succeed unless the surrounding states have a stake, he added.
On the topic of settlements, Obama said Israel had "shown restraint over the last several months" that he believed had been "conducive to the prospects of us getting into direct talks."
"My hope is once direct talks have begun, well before moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success, not every action by one party or the other is taken as a reason for not engaging in talks, so there ends up being more room created by more trust," he said.
He said he had discussed privately with Netanyahu, and with his counterpart Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who visited in June, "a range of confidence building measures that can be taken by all sides that improve the prospects of a successful negotiation." Still, neither he nor the prime minister directly addressed the issue of settlements during the question-and-answer session with reporters and White House officials declined to say whether the matter was discussed.
The prime minister said it was "high time" the two sides began direct talks on peace, that Israel was prepared to do "a lot" to put in place a secure peace and that he was "committed to that peace."
Netanyahu also said the single most dominant issue threatening peace in the region was the prospect that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons and he thanks Obama for stating his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
"That has been translated by the president into his leadership at the [U.N.] Security Council, which passed sanctions against Iran, by the U.S. bill that the president signed just a few days ago and I urge other leaders to follow the president's lead and other countries to follow the U.S. lead to adopt much tougher sanctions against Iran, primarily those directed against its energy sector," Netanyahu said.
The president praised Israel for allowing more goods into Gaza. A deadly incident involving the Israeli military and a flotilla bringing goods to Gaza forced Netanyahu to postpone until now a trip originally scheduled for June 1.
The prime minister, who has now met with the president five times in the United States, closed his opening remarks by saying it was time the Obamas came to Israel.
"I'm ready," Obama said. Still, the president did not commit to a date for a visit. Obama last traveled to Israel in the summer of 2008, when he was running for the presidency.