Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday urged Arab countries to make immediate moves toward normalizing ties with Israel and said he would offer "concrete" steps toward peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu made the plea during a debate in parliament that came as he tries to balance international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians with internal calls from within his hardline coalition not to budge.
"We are prepared to make, and we will make, concrete steps for peace with the Palestinians," he said. "We expect the Palestinians to make such concrete steps as well. And it would be good if Arab countries joined the peace effort and made concrete and symbolic steps toward normalization with Israel, not later, but now," Netanyahu said.
He mentioned cooperation in economic projects and agriculture but insisted any progress would depend on positive Palestinian actions.
'New and refreshing'
President Barack Obama supports the normalization idea, Netanyahu said, calling it a "new and refreshing" approach that "totally matches our views."
Netanyahu, who was at the White House last week, also said that he and Obama agree the Iranian threat could create an opportunity to bring Arab countries together in a coalition of moderates, Netanyahu said.
Israel considers Iran a serious danger because of its nuclear program, development of long-range missiles and frequent references by its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Israel's destruction. Israel dismisses Iran's insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful, charging that the Iranians are building nuclear weapons.
Obama has made clear that his administration supports the creation of a Palestinian state, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for a complete halt to construction in West Bank settlements. The U.S. considers Israel's 121 settlements obstacles to peace, since they are built on territory claimed by the Palestinians.
Netanyahu's policies clash with those of the U.S. on both of those points, raising concerns of a looming rift with Washington.
Netanyahu says he is willing to resume peace talks immediately, but has not said he supports the creation of a Palestinian state, a cornerstone of international Mideast peace efforts.
'Natural growth' of settlements
Netanyahu also says existing settlements should continue to expand to accommodate "natural growth" in their populations. He also has ruled out ceding sovereignty in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state. Israel captured the area in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it.
Senator Robert Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania heading a Congressional delegation visiting Israel, said Wednesday that the administration's policy over the settlements is still being formulated.
Though Obama called for a total construction freeze, Casey said, "I think there is a way to meet in the middle, and obviously the articulations and definitions are going to be important. It is too early to prejudge."