Israel urged to accept 2 states
WASHINGTON: US Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged Israel's new right-leaning government to stop building settlements in the West Bank and accept negotiations for a Palestinian state.
Biden also asked Arab states to start moving toward ending Israel's isolation as President Barack Obama and his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres met for talks here.
It was the first summit between the close allies since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Israel's premier, and Obama took over in January as US president.
"Israel's security is non-negotiable. Period," Biden told some 6,500 delegates to the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which calls itself the most influential foreign policy lobby in Washington.
"But Israel has to work toward a two-state solution," Biden said in the most forceful language the Obama administration has used so far to set out what it expects both from Israel and Arab nations.
"You're not going to like my saying this but (do) not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement," Biden told the audience, which nonetheless applauded him.
And he stressed at a Washington Convention Center decked out with giant photographs of US and Israeli leaders greeting each other over the decades, that the Obama administration stood behind Israel's security.
Netanyahu, who has been invited for talks here in the coming weeks, has so far refused to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state, and has insisted on focusing efforts on strengthening the West Bank economy before engaging in negotiations on a final status agreement.
Biden said the Obama administration looked forward to working with Netanyahu on how to strengthen the security apparatus of the US-backed Palestinian Authority (PA).
He urged the Arab states to support and fund Palestinian security and other institutions in the West Bank, which the PA still rules after a 2007 violent showdown with the militant movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
"Now is the time for Arab states to make meaningful gestures to show the Israeli leadership and the people the promise of ending Israel's isolation in the region is real and genuine," Biden said.
"They must take action now," he added.
Senator John Kerry, a fellow Democrat who replaced Biden as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made more specific pleas to the Arab states when he spoke to the conference moments earlier.
He urged Arab states to start "treating Israel like a normal country, ending the boycott, letting El Al (airline) fly over their countries and meeting Israel leaders."
He said "lack of support from Arab states" was a key reason that the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks failed in 2000 and degenerated into years of violence.
But he said there was a shift in the region in which Arabs now embrace the idea of land for peace and are also arrayed against a growing threat from Iran.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce terror and abide by past deals with Israel if Washington is to encourage the Jewish state to hold talks with the Palestinian Islamist movement.
"Those (requirements) haven't changed," Gibbs told a press briefing.
No details immediately emerged of Peres's separate talks with Obama, Biden and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But Peres told reporters Netanyahu had signed up to the commitments of the US-backed "road-map" when asked by reporters about the new Israeli administration's failure to so far endorse a two-state solution.
"Mr Netanyahu said he will abide by the commitments of the previous government," Peres said after his closed-door meeting with Obama.
"The previous government accepted the road map -- in the roadmap you will find the attitude to the two state solution."
Biden ended his speech by calling for Palestinian militants to release immediately and unconditionally Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for nearly three years.