It was the first time that Obama had laid out a timetable for his initiative.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama offered assurances that he did not intend for talks with Iran to become “an excuse for inaction,” a major concern of Israeli officials worried that Tehran will string out talks while making progress toward acquiring a nuclear weapon.
But he also made clear that he was prepared to wait months for Iran to respond to the U.S. offer of better ties in return for halting its nuclear activities. He emphasized that the year-end timetable would be for assessing whether the diplomatic effort was “moving in the right direction,” not a deadline for reaching a final agreement with Iran on halting its nuclear activities.
“By the end of the year I think we should have some sense as to whether or not the talks are having some benefit,” Obama said.
Israeli officials have made clear that they preferred a shorter timetable for assessing Tehran’s seriousness. Obama said that he assured Netanyahu that the U.S. “was not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions,” if the U.S. diplomatic initiative does not produce results.
In another sign of the subtle differences between the U.S. and Israel, Obama emphasized that his goal was to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon, while Netanyahu indicated a tougher objective — stopping Iran from achieving the capability of building a nuclear bomb. Iran says its nuclear program is for exclusive peaceful purposes.
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Sitting next to Obama in the Oval Office, Netanyahu said he appreciated the fact that Obama had emphasized “all options” were still available for dealing with the nuclear threat, by which the Israeli leader clearly meant that a military strike against Iranian nuclear was still possible. U.S officials have not ruled out military action but several top officials have made clear they believe such a move would be a mistake.
On the Arab-Israeli peace process, Obama issued the strongest call yet by the administration for Israel to halt settlement activity on the West Bank.
“We have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward,” he said.
But he framed the challenge of getting Arab-Israeli peace talks going as one that will require difficult steps by all the parties, including Arab regime in the region and Palestinian leaders.
“There is a recognition that the Palestinians are going to have to do a better job” at maintaining security and at providing services that will build the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, Obama said.
Netanyahu did not respond to Obama’s call for a halt to settlement activity, and he did not endorse the concept of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Instead he set the goal of the peace process as “two peoples living side by side,” a formulation that sidesteps whether he supports an independent Palestinian state. He repeated his call for Arab governments to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and to engage directly with Israel, which he said would expand the “circle of peace” in the region.
“We’re prepared to move with the president and others in the region if they are prepared to move,” Netanyahu said.