Monday, November 9, 2009

Netanyahu to tell Obama: I'm ready to be generous in curbing settlements - doing everything in power to advance the peace process

(Haaretz, Jpost).Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to tell U.S. President Barack Obama that he was "very serious" about wanting to advance peace talks with the Palestinians during the two leaders' scheduled meeting on Monday.

The last-minute scheduling of Netanyahu's White House meeting, after Israeli officials said over the past several weeks that Netanyahu hoped to see Obama, was widely seen as a sign of strained relations between the two leaders.

"We mean business," Netanyahu planned to tell the American president, and add that Israel was ready to be "generous" in scaling back the construction in West Bank settlements.

Netanyahu was further set to tell Obama that there was never any Israeli intention to halt settlement construction before entering into talks with the Palestinians. "What more do I need to do?" he was to ask.

Sources close to the prime minister have said that Netanyahu is convinced that he is doing everything in his power to advance the peace process.

Netanyahu was also to voice his willingness to make concessions in efforts to achieve an agreement. However, he was to stress his refusal to compromise Israel's security in the process, placing an emphasis on the importance of preventing the influx of weapons into any territory that Israel should withdraw from under a future deal.

"We're ready to go a long way, and to be generous in restricting [settlement] construction as a gesture to jumpstart the negotiations, and also [to be generous] in concessions to reach a settlement," Netanyahu said in briefings with his senior staff ahead of the meeting with Obama, according to sources close to the prime minister.

"But," he added, "we won't compromise on security arrangements, and that includes preventing the entry of weapons and armaments to any area Israel will vacate. Until today, the security arrangements [reached] in Gaza and Lebanon were not effective, and weapons and armaments were smuggled in freely. In any future settlement, security arrangements must be effective," the prime minister said.

Netanyahu was also quoted by senior PMO sources as criticizing the Palestinian demand for a total settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations.

"For 16 years, there has never been a demand for a construction freeze as a precondition for starting negotiations, nor was there Israeli willingness to restrict construction before entering negotiations," he said, "so we are convinced that Israel is doing everything it must to advance peace while preserving quiet."

The prime minister intends to explain this to Obama in their meeting, which will take place overnight Monday Israel time.

One source close to the prime minister asked rhetorically, "What more must Israel say just to earn the start of negotiations? Bibi plans to tell Obama that he and the government are serious in preparing for peace. We mean business."

Officials close to the prime minister have in the past placed the blame for introducing the demand for a total pre-negotiations settlement freeze on the Obama administration itself, but they have pulled back from this position in recent months.

"We're not dealing with who is at fault for what," said one official. "There are two sides now. One is the Israeli side which is willing to start negotiations, and the other is the Palestinian side which is refusing. The onus for starting negotiations is not on the Americans, but on the Palestinians."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs fielded questions ahead of the meeting, saying that the "policy of the United States government for many decades has been no more settlements. That's not something that is new to this administration. It's something that I think has gotten disproportionate media coverage, but it's not a policy difference in this administration and previous administrations.