Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed his case that dealing with the threat from Iran and its nuclear program was essential to the Mideast peace process in meetings Tuesday with U.S. lawmakers.
Winding up a three-day trip after talks with President Barack Obama, Netanyahu met with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and headed for sessions with House and Senate leaders and a group of Jewish legislators.
The Israeli leader was laying out his vision of Mideast peacemaking and making his case for strong action against Iran. He was also meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
After a meeting with the leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, Netanyahu glossed over differences between his stance and Obama's, saying that the U.S. and Israel were working together to resume the Mideast peace road map and "bring other elements in the Arab world into the process."
Netanyahu said that the new thing emerging from his talks with Obama is that "not only Israel has to give but also the Palestinians and Arab countries, not at the end of the process but now. They have to take concrete steps to improve relations with Israel and to begin to set into motion reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world."
Not "a one-way street"
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat, said he was "encouraged by a number of things" Netanyahu said earlier during a meeting with committee members.
In blunt discussions Monday, Obama told Netanyahu to stop expanding Jewish settlements and grasp the "historic opportunity" to make peace with the Palestinians. Kerry said he too had stressed to Netanyahu "the importance of Israel moving forward, especially in respect to the settlements issue."
But Kerry said he also told the Israeli that the issue was not "a one-way street" and that Arab steps toward joining the "regional road map" to peace were also critical.
Netanyahu said he told Kerry and the other senators that the threat from Iran remains a strong part of any equation for negotiations.
"We intend to pursue the peace track independent of what happens in Iran," Netanyahu said, adding that "in point of fact, it should be done in parallel."
Netanyahu considers Iran, with its nuclear program, arsenal of ballistic missiles and repeated calls for Israel's destruction, to be his country's greatest threat. He said Tuesday that Israel and "its neighbors" recognize the threat from Iran, and noted that "I was assured by President Obama yesterday that the U.S. is committed to preventing that from happening."
Obama said he also told the Israeli leader that negotiations start from an existing agreement to establish an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And, he told reporters that serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would be possible only if Netanyahu would order an end to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Netanyahu, whose hard-line government replaced a more moderate Israeli coalition last March, said he was ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians immediately but refused to say if he would negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. On the settlements, Netanyahu told reporters who traveled with him that Palestinians must also be held to their obligation to dismantle militant groups.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visits the White House on May 28, has said he would not resume negotiations unless Israel committed to a two-state solution and agreed to freeze settlements. His aides offered praise for Obama but were disappointed with Netanyahu's response.
Obama declared a readiness to seek deeper international sanctions against Iran if it shunned U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program. He said he expected a positive response to his diplomatic outreach by the end of the year.
Iranian officials did not publicly comment on Obama's decision to give the country until the end of the year to respond to U.S. diplomatic overtures.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki reiterated Tuesday that Iran appreciates Obama's new approach but is waiting for concrete changes in U.S. policy.
"Since assuming office, the new U.S. president has proposed new outlooks and we also witness changes in his rhetoric that differ from his predecessor, but these words should be translated into action," Iran's official news agency quoted Mottaki as saying after meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Tehran.