Amid Ukraine crisis, Obama meets Netanyahu
Even as he grappled with the Ukraine crisis, President Barack Obama turned to White House talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking to nudge him forward in Middle East peace efforts and ease his suspicions about diplomacy with Iran.
With time running out for a framework Israeli-Palestinian deal to salvage a troubled US-brokered peace process, Obama and Netanyahu sparred in public comments before their meeting, which comes at a critical juncture for the president's second-term foreign policy agenda.
Netanyahu arrived in Washington to a veiled but blunt warning from Obama that it would be harder to protect Israel against efforts to isolate it internationally if peace efforts failed.
Signalling that Obama's overture could fall on deaf ears, Netanyahu, in a statement issued by his office, put the onus on Palestinians to advance prospects for peace and vowed to hold the line during his visit to Washington.
"We need to stand firm on our crucial interests. I've proven that I'm doing that, against all pressure and all uncertainty, and I'll continue to do that here as well," the right-wing Israeli leader.
Just hours later, Netanyahu made his way through the snow-blanketed US capital for his first face-to-face meeting with Obama since September.
Differences between Obama and Netanyahu are expected to be even more pronounced in the Oval Office meeting over US strategy in nuclear talks with Iran. Obama is seeking room for diplomacy, while Netanyahu says sanctions on Tehran are being eased prematurely.
At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to persuade Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a framework deal that would enable troubled land-for-peace negotiations to continue beyond an April target date for a final accord.
Abbas is due at the White House on March 17.
"When I have a conversation with Bibi, that's the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?" Obama, using Netanyahu's nickname and borrowing from the Jewish rabbinical sage Hillel, said in an interview with Bloomberg View.
Obama's warning of a potential "international fallout" for Israel if peace efforts break down and the building of Jewish settlements continues raised hackles in Israel, where he was accused of trying to squeeze concessions. Israelis are increasingly concerned about an anti-Israel boycott movement.
Possibly further complicating the talks, an Israeli government report on Monday showed that Israeli construction starts of settler homes had more than doubled last year to 2,534, from 1,133 in 2012.
Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured those areas in the 1967 Middle East war and in 2005, pulled out of the Gaza Strip, now run by Hamas Islamists opposed to Abbas's peace efforts.