Obama, Netanyahu Tout Face-to-Face Talks With Palestinians

BY Larisa Epatko  July 6, 2010 at 4:48 PM EST

President Barack Obama and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both said Tuesday that they expected proximity talks would lead to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a secure two-state solution.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, President Obama said five proximity talks had taken place between Israelis and Palestinians under Middle East special envoy George Mitchell. “We expect those proximity talks to lead to direct talks,” he said.

Confidence-building measures also were needed, including Palestinians refraining from provocative language and looking for opportunities to embarrass Israel, and Israel widening the scope of Palestinian responsibilities in the West Bank in response to tightened security measures employed by Palestinians there, the president said.

Netanyahu agreed that steps could be taken in the coming days and weeks, well ahead of a limited settlement expansion moratorium set to expire in September.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Tuesday in Jericho that “the key” to direct negotiations is Netanyahu. “It’s up to him, he has the choice. If he can, what President Obama declare, that Israel will stop settlement activities including natural growth, and resume the negotiations on permanent status issues where we leave it in December 2008, we will have them. We will have direct negotiations. We want direct negotiations.”

In addition, Mr. Obama said, “Arab states have to be supportive of peace, because although ultimately this is going to be determined by the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, they can’t succeed unless you have the surrounding states having a greater investment in the process than we’ve seen so far.”

Watch more of their news conference here:

We’re following this story on the NewsHour, and our foreign affairs reporter Robert Zeliger spoke with regional analysts about Netanyahu’s visit and the future of U.S.-Israeli relations:

Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the United States is trying to establish a new cooperative relationship with the Netanyahu government — something that has not been in place until now. The U.S. also is looking to establish a path forward in the process with the Palestinians, particularly moving from proximity to direct talks with Israelis.

The clock is ticking, Danin continued, because in September several issues will converge that could make the process more difficult, including a moratorium Israelis put on building settlements now set to expire that month.

It’s a volatile moment and it doesn’t take much to spark a real crisis — as we saw with the Turkish flotilla incident, he noted.

Robert Malley, who was special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs and now with the International Crisis Group, said the short-term interest between the two leaders is to show the relationship is back to normal after the storms of the preceding months and the previous meeting.

In the longer term, the leaders will be looking for a way to find convergence on the two most critical interests — the peace process, where their dispute has been papered over but not resolved, and on Iran, where there’s less of a divergence, Malley said.

According to Aaron David Miller, author and Woodrow Wilson Center public policy scholar, the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama masks a darker dysfunction.

Two moments of truth are looming, said Miller. One is the question of whether Israel and the U.S. are on the same page on the major issues — land, Jerusalem, etc. — and the second is whether Israel and the Palestinians are on same page. Putting out a plan is easy, getting the sides to agree to it is what’s hard, he said.

We’ll have more analysis on Tuesday’s NewsHour.