Abbas: There is no point in direct talks with Israel now

Obama says Israelis concerned by his father’s name, asserts peace can be achieved

Turkey’s FM: Israel knows what it has to do

Netanyahu inclined to assign Livni for negotiations

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to soothe rocky relations, declaring that any talk of a rift is unfounded. Obama said the U.S.-Israeli bond is "unbreakable."

"The United States is committed to Israel’s security," Obama said as the two leaders addressed reporters in the Oval Office. "We are committed to that special bond. And we are going to do what's required to back that up, not just with words, but with actions."

For the Israeli leader's part, Netanyahu said of solving years of strife with Palestinians: "We're committed to that peace. I'm committed to that peace." And he said that reports of the demise of the U.S.-Israel relationship are "flat wrong."

"There's a depth and richness of this relationship that is expressed every day," Netanyahu said before the two leaders headed into a working lunch.

Trying to add a sense of urgency, Netanyahu said he and Obama discussed specific steps that could be taken in the coming weeks to move the peace process forward, without elaborating. "When I say the next few weeks, that's what I mean," he said. "The president means that too."

Obama hailed Israel’s recent decision to greatly ease its 3-year blockade of the Gaza Strip as "real progress." And he said he believes Netanyahu wants peace with the Palestinians and is serious about resuming the face-to-face Mideast peace talks that broke off in December 2008.

Netanyahu and Obama talked as protesters gathered across the street in Lafayette Park and chanted "No More Aid, End the Blockade," referring to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

After heavy international pressure, including from Obama and other top U.S. officials, Israel's decision to ease its Gaza blockade will let in most consumer goods. The ban on exports from Gaza and limits on shipments of construction material remain.

It was the leaders' fifth meeting, and a makeup for a scheduled June 1 session at the White House that Netanyahu canceled to deal with fallout from Israel's deadly May 31 military raid on a flotilla trying to break the Gaza embargo.

The atmosphere — expressed in the rhetoric and in the schedule — was far different than at their chilly last meeting here. At that time, Obama, upset over Israeli policies in disputed East Jerusalem, had Netanyahu to the White House in the evening — and out of sight of all media coverage.

This time, the leaders appeared together before reporters in the Oval Office and then went into a lengthy working lunch.

A key topic was resuming the U.S.-mediated indirect peace talks. Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is ready to meet face to face with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but has given few indications about what concessions he is willing to make.

Specifically, he has rejected demands from Obama and the Palestinians for a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a promise to resume negotiations from where they broke off under his more dovish predecessor, Ehud Olmert. The Palestinians claim the areas for a future independent state.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu must choose between settlements and peace. "We want to resume direct negotiations, but the problem is that the land that is supposed to be a Palestinian state is being eaten up by settlements," he told The Associated Press. He said the Palestinian demand that Israel halt all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and resume talks where they broke off in 2008 "are not conditions, these are obligations."

Netanyahu has imposed only a partial settlement freeze, and that is set to expire in September. The Israeli leader is under pressure from hard-liners in his coalition government to resume full-fledged construction once the freeze ends.

Obama did not answer when asked if he wanted Netanyahu to extend the freeze. Instead, he praised Israel for showing “restraint” on settlements, saying it has created more opportunity for direct talks. The president said he hoped those face-to-face talks between Israelis and Palestinians could resume before the September freeze expiration.

Obama and Netanyahu also talked about efforts to end Iran's nuclear weapons pursuit, including sanctions that Obama signed into law last week. That legislation followed a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran.

Netanyahu said the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is the most prominent danger to peace, and called on other nations to follow the U.S. example and adopt their own unilateral sanctions on Tehran.

Meanwhile, Obama said in an Israeli TV interview it is highly unlikely the Jewish state would surprise Washington with an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

"It is unacceptable for Iran to posses nuclear weapons and we are going to do everything we can to prevent that happening," Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 television in the interview taped last week.

"I think the relationship between the US and Israel is sufficiently strong that neither of us try to surprise each other," he said, when asked if he was concerned Israel could catch the US off guard with an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

"We try to coordinate on issues of mutual concern and that approach is one Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu is committed to," Obama said.

Israel, which has the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear arsenal, regards Iran as its principal threat after repeated predictions by the Islamic republic's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Jewish state's demise.

Along with the West, it suspects Iran of trying to develop atomic weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear program, a claim Tehran denies.

Israel has backed US-led efforts to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability through sanctions, but has also refused to rule out military force.

In 1981, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor and reportedly also attacked a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.

Obama said despite Iranian denials, "all indicators are they are pursuing nuclear weapons," and preventing this was a priority for him.

"The single most important threat to Israel, Iran and its potential possession of a nuclear weapon, has been my number one foreign policy priority in the last 18 months," the US president said.

"We will continue to keep the door open for a diplomatic resolution of this challenge," he said, adding that "I assure you I have not taken options off the table."

Iran insists its nuclear program is aimed solely at power generation and medical research and says the international community should focus its attention on Israel, which, unlike Iran, is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ahmadinejad said that new sanctions recently slapped on his country by Western nations would not alter Tehran's nuclear program.

No matter how many sanctions resolutions are approved, "there will be no minor change in our nuclear program," he said through a translator after attending a summit in Nigeria. "Those resolutions are only paper. What's going to shape our future is our determination."

Obama gave the interview, his first to an Israeli channel since taking office, during a visit to the United States by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been hailed as a fence-mending trip between the two leaders.

Turkey insisted on conditions set for Israel to fix the two countries' fractured relations after Israel's deadly raid on an international aid flotilla sparked diplomatic rows between the two former allies.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey's expectations for Israel to mend the bilateral ties were clear and that there was no change on Turkey's position.

"Our expectations are very rightful demands. Both Israel and our other interlocutors know these demands in detail," Davutoglu was quoted by the semi-official Anatolia news agency as telling an inauguration ceremony of the honorary consulate of Bosnia- Herzegovina in central Turkish province of Konya.

Turkish-Israeli ties took a heavy blow in the wake of Israel's deadly raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara (Blue Marmara) aid ship, which led the Gaza-bound flotilla, on May 31.

Eight Turkish pro-Palestinian activists and one American of Turkish origin were killed when Israeli commandos stormed the ship as part of an operation to stop the ship heading for the Israeli- blockaded Gaza Strip.

Once being Israel's closest Muslim ally, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel in response to the raid. It has also cancelled joint military operations with Israel and prohibited Israeli military flights from using Turkish airspace.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put forward four conditions for reconciliation with Israel: an apology from Israel, compensation for families of the nine victims in Israeli forces' raid, international inquiry into the incident and lifting of the Israeli embargo on Gaza.

However, Israel has clearly ruled out the possibility of apologizing for the raid and initiated an internal commission to investigate the incident rather than an international one.

In an attempt to defuse the tensions, Israeli Minister of Trade, Industry and Labor Benjamin Ben-Eliezer met with Davutoglu last week in Belgium to discuss the strained relations.

In statements last week, Davutoglu made Turkey's conditions more flexible, saying his country expected Israel to apologize or approve an international investigation.

Davutoglu made the call before the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, which Turkey hoped would put pressure on Netanyahu to address the crisis.

The United States wants Israel and Turkey, whose earlier friendship had benefited U.S. policy in the Middle East, to patch up the fried ties.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that his country has no intention to apologize to Turkey.

Meanwhile, Top Palestinian Authority negotiator Ahmed Qurei told a gathering in Jerusalem this week that the dispute over the final status of the capital in talks between the PA and Israel is turning the city into a “time bomb.”

Qurei made the statement at a panel that featured him with Kadima Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni, who contended that “the status quo is not possible.” Both also agreed that indirect talks were unnecessary after years of direct negotiations. The two were leaders of their respective negotiating teams during the summit that led to the Annapolis Joint Declaration in November 2007.

Qurei and Livni met with reporters at the King David Hotel ahead of a conference organized by Hebrew University's Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, entitled “The Israeli-Palestinian Proximity Talks: Lessons from Past Negotiations.”

Supporting the “two state solution” is in Israel's interest, Livni told the gathering of academics, “and not a gift to the president of the United States.” U.S. President Barack Obama has been actively trying to pressure Israel into increased concessions to the PA in an attempt to woo Fatah leader and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to at least begin indirect negotiations, if nothing else.

Both Livni and Qurei agree that the window of opportunity for final status talks to succeed is rapidly closing. Iranian-backed terrorist organizations committed to Israel's destruction are gaining ground, especially in Gaza, they pointed out.

Qurei in particular focused on the recent announcement of plans by the Jerusalem municipality to demolish 22 illegal Arab homes in the Silwan neighborhood, and to retroactively legalize 66 others in order to rehabilitate an ancient area called the “King's Garden.” The Fatah leader told the gathering that the plan, as well as other past construction, and increasing numbers of Jews moving into the neighborhoods of Silwan (Shiloah) and Sheikh Jarrah (Shimon HaTzaddik), is dangerous.

“The Jerusalem situation, I think, is a time bomb if it continues in this way,” he said. “It has an impact on the Palestinian people... and on trust on both sides.”

The PA is demanding all of the Jerusalem neighborhoods that were restored to the city during the 1967 Six Day War – such as Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, among others – to be handed over for creation of a capital for a new Arab country within Israel's current borders.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said bluntly in an interview with Fox News last week, “We have differences with the Palestinians. We want a united city. They have their own views. We can – this is one of the issues that will have to be negotiated.”

However, despite Netanyahu's numerous concessions, among them his controversial agreement last November to freeze Jewish construction for 10 months in Judea and Samaria, the PA has shied away from coming to the table to begin direct talks for a final status deal.

The Palestinian president, who is under U.S. pressure to resume direct talks with Israel, said that doing so under current circumstances would be pointless.

Mahmoud Abbas sounded determined not to return to the table unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commits to an internationally mandated settlement freeze and agrees to pick up talks where they left off under the Israeli leader's predecessor in December 2008.

However, it could become increasingly difficult for him to stick to his position as the Obama administration pushes harder to revive the negotiations.

Netanyahu hasn't agreed to either demand, and has so far curbed but not frozen settlement activity. He insists negotiations should be held without any preconditions.

Later this week, White House envoy George Mitchell is to meet with Abbas and is expected to lay out some gestures Israel is prepared to make to bring Abbas back to the table, said an Abbas aide.

Obama called Abbas last week, following the U.S. president's meeting with Netanyahu. The White House said Obama and Abbas talked about ways to revive direct talks soon.

The Palestinians have said that after 17 years of intermittent talks, they don't want to start all over again, especially with an Israeli leader who has retreated from positions presented by his predecessors.

Abbas' aide Yasser Abed Rabbo told Palestinian radio that the Palestinians don't want to enter open-ended negotiations with Israel.

"There must be a ... timetable, a framework for these negotiations," he said. "We will not enter new negotiations that could take more than 10 years."

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. They have said the 1967 borders must be the baseline for negotiations, but that they are ready to swap some land to enable Israel to keep some of the largest settlements it has built on occupied land since 1967.

Netanyahu says he will not relinquish any part of Jerusalem and has not presented his own border plan.