Obama Praises Netanyahu for Easing Gaza Blockade

Washington, July 7 (DPA) US President Barack Obama praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for takings steps to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip in a meeting at the White House meant to cast aside tension between the two leaders.

Obama and Netanyahu dismissed the notion of a diplomatic rift between them following Israel's plans announced in March for new construction on land claimed by the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and contrary to US policy.

Obama said he believes Netanyahu is committed to the US-backed peace process as indicated by the steps taken to improve life in Gaza.

"We've seen real progress on the ground. I think it's been acknowledged that it has moved more quickly and more effectively than many people anticipated," Obama said, sitting near Netanyahu in the Oval Office Tuesday.

Both men emphasised the need to move from the indirect, or "proximity", peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians mediated by the US and into direct negotiations.

"It's high time to begin direct talks," Netanyahu said. "With the help of President Obama, (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas and myself should engage in direct talks to reach a political settlement of peace, coupled with security and prosperity."

"Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace," Obama said. "He's willing to take risks for peace. And during our conversation, he once again reaffirmed his willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians."

The meeting was Netanyahu's first at the White House since a chilly reception in March, following the Israeli plans to build new homes in East Jerusalem. Obama held the meeting in the evening and away from potential media coverage and without the customary photo op.

The White House was angered by the plans, viewing them as undermining trust with the Palestinians and the indirect talks. Worsening the rift was that the announcement came while Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel to put the final stamp on the US-mediated talks.

It was also Netanyahu's first visit to the White House since the May 31 deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish flotilla heading to Gaza. The incident increased pressure on Netanyahu to ease the blockade that has been in place since Hamas militants seized control of the Strip three years ago.

Israel has enforced the strict blockade to prevent Hamas from getting weapons. But Israel has now begun to allow the flow of most consumer goods into Gaza.

"We believe that there is a way to make sure that the people of Gaza are able to prosper economically while Israel is able to maintain its legitimate security needs in not allowing missiles and weapons to get to Hamas," Obama said.

Obama had been expected to press Netanyahu to extend a freeze on new settlement building in the West Bank due to expire at the end of September, but he did not directly respond to a question about whether he did so. Instead, he complimented Israel for showing "restraint over the last several months" on settlements.

He added that he was hopeful that direct talks aimed at resolving the issue will take place before the moratorium expires to help create trust.

The two leaders also discussed Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons programme, which Netanyahu identified as the "greatest new threat on the horizon".


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