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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Obama lays groundwork for Netanyahu meeting: Dismantle settlements

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has sent a clear signal to Israel, through Vice President Joseph Biden, to erect no new settlement and begin dismantling existing communities in the West Bank.   

Vice President Joseph Biden said the White House would demand that Israel take a series of steps to prepare for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Biden acknowledged that those steps would not be easy.

"Israel has to work for a two state-solution — you're not going to like my saying this — but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement and access to economic opportunity," Biden told the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee on May 5.

Biden's address marked the most specific U.S. demand from the new government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Obama was scheduled to meet Netanyahu in Washington on May 18, Middle East Newsline reported.

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Administration sources said Biden's message was meant to stress the determination of the Obama administration to establish a Palestinian state by 2012. They said Biden's message would be amplified during Obama's meeting with Netanyahu as part of an effort to release a U.S. plan by July 2009. The new Obama strategy would be endorsed by the so-called Quartet, comprised of the European Union, Russia, United Nations and the United States.

"The plan is being devised by the Obama administration with input from others," former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, head of the Quartet, said after Biden's speech. "We're about to get a new framework."

The United States has identified nearly 100 Jewish communities in the West Bank, some of them nearly 20 years old, as illegal and suitable for destruction. The Obama administration has also sought to block construction in other Jewish communities in the West Bank.

"Delaying the pursuit of these goals is not an option," Biden said. "It's easier, but it is not an option. And the longer we wait, the harder it will be."

Netanyahu was expected to oppose U.S. demands to destroy Jewish communities and impose a freeze on construction in the West Bank. After a 30-minute meeting with Obama, President Shimon Peres said Jewish residents have a right to remain in their communities.

"Israel cannot instruct settlers in existing settlements not to have children or get married," Peres said.

In his address, the vice president said Washington would continue its reconciliation effort with Iran. Biden said the U.S. policy would focus on preventing Teheran from developing nuclear weapons.

"We will pursue direct, principled diplomacy with Iran with the overriding goal of preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons," Biden said. "The United States will approach Iran initially in the spirit of mutual respect. We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations politically and economically."

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