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March 4, 2014

Tough choices nearing in Mideast talks

WASHINGTON — Seeking to salvage an elusive Middle East peace plan, President Barack Obama pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday to make the “tough decisions” needed to move forward on talks with the Palestinians.

But facing a U.S.-imposed April deadline, the Israeli leader declared pessimistically that, “Israel has been doing its part and, I regret to say, the Palestinians have not.” Netanyahu’s comments underscored the slim prospects of reaching an agreement to the long-running conflict, despite a robust effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Obama and Netanyahu spoke before an Oval Office meeting on a snowy Monday in Washington. The meeting marked a more direct foray into the peace negotiations by Obama, who will also meet at the White House later this month with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It is still possible to create two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine, with people living side by side in peace and security,” Obama said. “But it’s difficult. It requires compromise on all sides.”

While the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has improved after early tensions, the two leaders still grapple with deep differences, particularly on Iran. Israel sees Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat and fears Tehran is using U.S.-led negotiations to stall while it builds a bomb.

Obama, seeking to reassure Netanyahu, affirmed his “absolute commitment that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu insisted Monday that Iran must suspend all uranium enrichment, though any final deal between the international community and Iran would likely leave the Islamic republic with a small enrichment capacity.

“No country has a greater stake in this,” said Netanyahu, who is in Washington to speak at the annual meeting of AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby.

Obama, who has twice addressed the conference, is not speaking this year, though Kerry was scheduled to speak Monday night.

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