Netanyahu vows tough line on peace talks ahead of White House meeting

The Associated Press

File- In this Feb. 9, 2014 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office. Israel's prime minister headed to Washington on Sunday for a high-stakes meeting with President Barack Obama about U.S.-led Mideast peace efforts, vowing to maintain a tough line in the face of heavy international pressure to begin making concessions to the Palestinians. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

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By JOSEF FEDERMAN, Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister headed to Washington on Sunday for a high-stakes meeting with President Barack Obama about U.S.-led Mideast peace efforts, vowing to maintain a tough line in the face of heavy international pressure to begin making concessions to the Palestinians.

Benjamin Netanyahu's defiant tone set the stage for what could be a difficult meeting Monday with Obama. But with the clock ticking toward an April target date for a preliminary agreement, the Israeli leader could soon be forced to begin laying out a clearer vision for a future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Shortly before takeoff, Netanyahu vowed to "stand steadfast" on Israeli interests.

"In recent years, the state of Israel has been under various pressures," he said. "We have rejected them in the face of the unprecedented storm and unrest in the region and are maintaining stability and security. This is what has been and what will be."

After two decades of intermittent negotiations, including five years of deadlock following Netanyahu's return to power in 2009, the United States relaunched peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians last July. The sides agreed to a nine-month target for forging a final peace deal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has traveled to the region more than 10 times for meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He has also talked to them on the phone repeatedly. But with no signs of breakthrough, Kerry has been forced to scale back his objectives.

The initial goal of a final deal by April was later replaced by more modest U.S. aspirations of brokering the contours of an agreement. In recent weeks, there were expectations that Kerry would present his own ideas for such a framework, with Abbas and Netanyahu agreeing to continue talks for up to a year on that basis.

But the gaps between Abbas and Netanyahu remain wide, and it's not certain Kerry will present a framework in such conditions.

Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Kerry said Netanyahu's White House meeting should not be viewed as a "showdown." He said conversations would continue with both sides, "and hopefully, over the next weeks, we can reach some kind of understanding about how to negotiate a final status agreement."

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in 1967 — for an independent state. They have demanded that Israel agree to base the final borders with a future Palestine on the pre-1967 lines, with small land swaps that would allow Israel to keep some of the Jewish settlements it has built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has refused to recognize the 1967 lines as a starting point. He wants to retain an Israeli presence in a strategic area of the West Bank along the border with Jordan and keep large blocs of settlements closest to Israel. He has given no indication as to how much territory he is willing to cede and he has rejected any division of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital.

Netanyahu has also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. The Palestinians reject this out of hand, saying it would undermine the rights of displaced Palestinian refugees who claim properties in what is now Israel as well as the rights of Israel's Arab minority.

Kerry apparently made little headway, most recently at a meeting with Abbas in Paris. The Palestinians fear the emerging American proposal will largely side with Israel, particularly on the Jewish state and by including only a vague mention of Palestinian "aspirations" in Jerusalem, rather than a specific reference to east Jerusalem.