Page last updated at 22:42 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 23:42 UK

Obama presses Netanyahu over two-state plan

President Barack Obama: 'We have seen progress stalled on this front'

US President Barack Obama has urged visiting Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a Palestinian state.

After their first talks since both took office, Mr Obama restated his support for a two-state plan and said the US would be "engaged in the process".

He also said Israel had an obligation under the 2003 "roadmap" to stop Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu said he was ready to start peace talks "immediately" but refrained from endorsing a Palestinian state.

After their meeting in Washington, Mr Obama said he had suggested the Israeli prime minister had a "historic opportunity to get a serious movement" on Palestinian statehood.

I firmly believe it is not in Iran's interest to develop nuclear weapons
Barack Obama
US president

Mr Netanyahu said Israel was ready to live "side by side" with Palestinians and he could resume talks immediately, but any agreement depended on Palestinian acceptance of Israel's right to exist "as a Jewish state", he added.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reacted with derision to Mr Netanyahu's remarks.

"How can I govern myself by myself as a Palestinian with his occupation going on on my neck on the hour every hour? With his roadblocks segregating our towns and villages and refugee camps?" he said.

A Hamas official, Musher al-Masri, said the Americans still were not treating Israel and the Palestinians even-handedly.

In Israel itself, right-wingers said they were worried the Americans were moving away from their commitment to Israel's security, while opposition Kadima politicians said Mr Netanyahu had missed the chance to forge real trust with President Obama.

Nuclear Iran

The BBC's Kim Ghattas in Washington says Mr Obama was clearly putting the onus on Mr Netanyahu to accept a Palestinian state.

Kim Ghattas
The BBC's Kim Ghattas, in Washington

The two leaders emphasised very different issues during the comments they made to the cameras.

Mr Obama reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians but Mr Netanyahu refrained, as he has done since he's taken office, from uttering the words "Palestinian state".

The Israeli prime minister emphasised repeatedly that his top priority was to deal with the threat Iran poses because of its nuclear programme and insisted that progress on the peace track went hand in hand with tackling Iran.

So while there was no public spat, the gap remains and may put a real dent in Mr Obama's plans for grand peacemaking in the Middle East.

The differences between the two men are still there, she says, adding that the meeting has given Mr Obama an opportunity to assess how big the gap is, and how he can move forward ahead of meetings with Egyptian and Palestinian leaders next week.

Our correspondent says Mr Netanyahu came to Washington with his own list of priorities, topped by Iran's nuclear programme.

"There's never been a time when Arabs and Israelis see a common threat the way we see it today," the Israeli prime minister said.

Mr Obama said "it is not in Iran's interest" to develop nuclear arms, and that the US would keep options open.

He stressed that "we should have some sense by the end of the year" on whether talks with Iran were bearing fruit.

Amid reports from Israel that the authorities were moving ahead with plans to expand a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, Mr Obama said Israel had an obligation to stop Jewish settlement activity.

Tenders have been issued to build 20 housing units in Maskiot, a former Israeli military base that has been designated for housing settlers removed from Gaza in 2005.

Israeli campaign group Peace Now says this is a clear message to Washington that the Israeli government intends to expand settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.

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