Netanyahu presses Obama on Jewish state during White House meeting

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday pressed the White House to insist Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In an Oval Office meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu said that, while Israel has been doing its part to make peace, the Palestinians have not.

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“What we want is peace. Not a piece of paper, but real peace. Mr. President, I think it is about time for the Palestinian people to recognize a state for the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu’s demand for Palestinians to explicitly recognize Israel’s Jewish status could threaten to derail already fragile peace talks and underscored the difficulty of what Obama referred to as “lengthy, painstaking negotiations.”

Over the weekend, Obama cautioned the “window is closing” for a peace deal and implored Netanyahu to “seize the moment.” He also made veiled reference to the security and economic consequences were Israel to be held responsible for failed talks.

“What I do believe is that, if you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction and ... if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama told Bloomberg View.

Palestinian leaders have said openly declaring Israel a Jewish state would carry unacceptable symbolic and practical ramifications.

The gesture would represent a concession beyond the traditional demand to recognize Israel’s right to exist and could marginalize the Arab minority within the country. The demand is also seen as a bid on Netanyahu’s part to preempt “right of return” claims by Palestinian refugees.

“The Jewishness of the state of Israel — this is a new addition,” Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, told The Associated Press. “We are working to establish a pluralistic, democratic, inclusive state in Palestine. Not an exclusive state based on religion, ethnicity or whatever.”

In the Oval Office on Monday, Obama reiterated that “some tough decisions are going to have to be made.”

“It’s difficult, and it requires compromise on all sides,” Obama said.

Obama’s efforts to muscle Netanyahu did not appear to be paying immediate dividends.

After Obama’s interview was published, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz — a Netanyahu ally — denounced his comments.

“I didn’t like all of the remarks. I think there is no reason to put pressure on Israel,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.

“Netanyahu will, I think, give a clear answer: We are ready for peace. We want to advance a diplomatic accord. But we, rightly, worry about and fear for our national security.”

Indeed, Netanyahu argued to Obama that Israeli concessions had been met with “scores of suicide bombings, thousands of rockets on our cities fired from the areas we vacated, and just incessant Palestinian incitement against Israel.”

Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, believes that the Israeli leader’s demand for recognition grew out of “genuine substantive concerns,” like the right to return. 

“I don’t think he’s insisting on this because he wants to scuttle the talks,” Berkowitz said.

The White House needs Netanyahu to remain engaged — and flexible — if the peace talks have any chance of succeeding. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of Israel lobby J Street, says he believes only the Israeli prime minister could usher in a deal — if he concludes it’s essential for Israel’s survival.

“If he has, I really believe that he’s the one who can do this,” Ben-Ami explained. “If he hasn’t, and if at the end of the day, he decides to walk away from all of this, it’s going to be a long time.”

If President Obama was playing the role of bad cop, pressuring Netanyahu to engage with new urgency, Secretary of State John Kerry — who has been the central U.S. facilitator in the peace talks — looked on Monday to strike a different tone.

In a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, Kerry planned to call for “mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Jewish people and the nation-state of the Palestinian people,” according to excerpts provided by the State Department.

“And every time Israel is subjected to attacks on its legitimacy, whether at the United Nations or from any nation, the United States will use every tool we have to defeat these efforts — and we will stand with Israel,” Kerry said.

Rebecca Shabad contributed.