Updated at 6:30 p.m.
President Obama pressed for movement on Middle East pace talks during a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, diving into an effort he has largely left to Secretary of State John Kerry so far.
A peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians has been a long elusive goal, and one that the president had put aside after a failed first-term attempt. Kerry has led the way with several visits to the region as he works to convince Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept a framework for a final accord.In their meeting Monday, Mr. Obama ramped up pressure on Netanyahu by arguing that he is the leader who has the ability to steer the country toward a peace deal - so long as he acts soon. The president said in an interview with Bloomberg View that if Netanyahu "does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach."
The president commended Netanyahu for his "seriousness" in the peace talks but also warned that time was running out to establish a framework for peace. "Tough decisions are going to have to be made," he said.
Though made just brief remarks about the peace process, the Bloomberg interview offered a window into what the president might tell Netanyahu behind closed doors Monday.
"There comes a point where you can't manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices," Mr. Obama said in the Bloomberg View interview. "Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel's traditions?"
Netanyahu, for his part, said Israel has taken "unprecedented steps" toward the peace process, but criticized Palestinians for failing to return the gestures.
"What we all want fervently is peace. Not a piece of paper, but that too, but a real peace that is anchored in recognition of two nation states that recognize and respect each other," Netanyahu said prior to his meeting with Mr. Obama. And while the Israelis will have to recognize a state for the Palestinians, he said, "I think its about time they recognized a nation state for the Jewish people. We've only been there for 4,000 years and I hope President Abbas does this as I hope he'll take seriously Israel's security needs."
The two leaders also discussed the ongoing international negotiations to roll back Iran's nuclear program, an effort that Netanyahu has greeted with public skepticism. Before the two leaders met Monday, he called preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon "the greatest challenge" the two countries face.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States, has so far failed to convince Congress to impose fresh sanctions on Iran - a move the White House has said could derail the talks. Netanyahu will speak to the group Tuesday, but Mr. Obama, who has spoken to the group twice before, will not. Though Netanyahu did not publicly push for sanctions, he did say Iran must be prevented from developing uranium.
"I can tell you that no country has a greater stake in this than Israel," he said. "We just cannot be brought back to the brink of destruction."
Later in the day, after a meeting with Netanyahu, congressional leaders seconded the Israeli prime minister's concerns over Iran's nuclear program. In a rare show of bipartisanship, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., released a letter urging the administration to accept nothing less than a complete dismantlement of Iran's nuclear-weapons related infrastructure and expressing their concern that the limited sanctions relief included in the interim agreement is allowing Iran to continue progress toward a nuclear weapon.
While they stopped short of calling for conditional sanctions, the pair wrote, "As negotiations progress, we expect your administration will continue to keep Congress regularly apprised of the details. And, because any long-term sanctions relief will require Congressional action, we urge you to consult closely with us so that we can determine the parameters of such relief in the event an agreement is reached, or, if no agreement is reached or Iran violates the interim agreement, so that we can act swiftly to consider additional sanctions and steps necessary to change Iran's calculation."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was more forceful in a speech before AIPAC Monday afternoon, calling for the passage of sanctions legislation that would take effect immediately if Iran fails to agree to completely abandon plans for a nuclear weapon.
"It is sanctions, tough sanctions, not the goodness of the heart or a change in heart of the Iranian leaders that brought Iran to the table," Schumer said. He praised Mr. Obama for convincing so many nations to adopt the current sanctions regime, but suggested it will not be enough to completely deter Iran.
"The only way that Iran will voluntarily give up nuclear weapons is if they know that tougher and tougher sanctions will be put in place until they do," he said. Pledging that Congress would carefully monitor the effects of the current limited sanctions relief, Schumer said the U.S. must be prepared to use "all available tools" to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons if the negotiations fail.