Obama set for fresh Middle East peace drive

By Anshel Pfeffer, April 7, 2011

United States President Barack Obama told Israeli President Shimon Peres at a meeting in Washington this week that he is set to launch a fresh campaign to kick-start the peace process.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Peres said: "Obama is prepared to launch a diplomatic initiative but only on the condition that it does not remain a one-time gesture."

Also at the meeting, Mr Peres invited Mr Obama to speak at a conference that the Israeli President is hosting in June in Jerusalem. Sources close to Mr Peres said that his invitation to Mr Obama was "received very positively".

While unofficial reports continue to emanate from Israeli sources on a new peace initiative by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, there is as yet no specific plan or even a fixed date for the much touted "Second Bar-Ilan speech" in which he may reveal his vision.

Next month, Mr Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Washington to address the United States Congress, but it is still unclear whether the Prime Minister will use the opportunity to unveil new ideas or simply shore up support.

Peres invited Obama to visit Israel in June

Meanwhile, the biggest concern for Israel is to try to block Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition for an independent state at September's UN General Assembly.

The two presidents met for 45 minutes alone in the Oval Office on Tuesday and then sat for lunch with their joint teams. Mr Netanyahu had briefed Mr Peres extensively, meeting him three times before he left for the US.

The President's mission was to convince the Obama administration of Israel's seriousness regarding the peace process and the dire implications of premature recognition of a Palestinian state on the process.

Following their meeting, Mr Obama refrained from stating any details on the prospects for the process but instead referred mainly to his views on the changing situation in Egypt and other Arab countries.

In addition, Mr Peres used the opportunity to repeat Israel's request for the release of Jonathan Pollard, the Jewish naval analyst who was imprisoned 25 years ago for spying for Israel, and asked for American assistance in purchasing additional F-35 stealth fighter jets and financing for more batteries of "Iron Dome" anti-missile defence systems.

The State Department on Tuesday condemned an Israeli decision to build 942 new homes in the south-east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo, but Mr Obama did not mention this issue either when talking to reporters after his meeting with Mr Peres.

After the meeting, Mr Peres said that the president said that "Israel has a duty to defend itself and he will regard Israel's security as a central concern throughout his presidency."

Last updated: 12:26pm, April 7 2011