Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Council of Foreign Relations in New York on Thursday that all core issues could be discussed in direct negotiations, and that if it were up to him, a peace deal with the Palestinians could be signed by the end of 2011.

“If it’s up to me, we’ll have an agreement,” Netanyahu said.

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But he stressed that an accord would require a willing and able partner in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. While he expressed a reluctance to criticize Abbas, Netanyahu said, “I tend to confound the critics and the skeptics, but I need a partner. You can’t go out on a trapeze, hold out your hand and not have a partner on the other side.”

Netanyahu implied he would not extend the moratorium on settlements, due to expire on September 26, saying Israel had already shown its good faith, and  decried the position that a moratorium extension should be a precondition for peace talks.

“Nobody’s going to deliver an agreement or a settlement from the outset,” the prime minister said. “If they’re waiting for that, I think that’s a big mistake. We’re prepared to talk about everything.”

The prime minister was winding up his trip to the US before flying back to Israel on Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama took his efforts to improve his relations with Israel out of the confines of the Oval Office and into Israel’s living rooms on Thursday, giving an interview to Channel 2 during which he articulated an understanding of the country’s fears and strong support for its security.

“Israeli people are going to have to overcome legitimate skepticism and more than legitimate fears in order to get a change that I think will secure Israel for another 60 years,” Obama said during the interview taped on Wednesday night and aired two days after he warmly welcomed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the White House.

Obama insists previous Netanyahu meeting was 'terrific'

Obama’s reception of Netanyahu was markedly different from their last meeting, which was held without photographers present or a joint statement.

But during his interview, Obama said that the earlier meeting had been badly misrepresented.

“The last time the prime minister came here, we had a terrific meeting,” he said, adding that reports that he had somehow snubbed Netanyahu were patently false, and that the lack of a photo-opportunity and statement “fed this impression that there were more strains then there were.

“I don’t want to be disingenuous, there have been differences,” Obama said. “Our view on settlements, for example, is consistent with all previous US administrations.”

He said that the positions his administration had voiced on the settlements had been done “not in the spirit of trying to undermine Israel’s security, but to strengthen it. Because we believe strongly that if we can achieve calm on the ground, that will help in the negotiations that lead to peace.”

Regarding whether he had urged Netanyahu to extend the 10-month settlement moratorium, Obama echoed what he said on Tuesday with Netanyahu at his side: that he would like to see the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks begin before then.

Trust must be built so both sides will not be 'paranoid'

One result of the direct talks, he said, would be to build trust between the sides so they would not be “so jumpy or paranoid about every single move being made, whether it is being related to Jerusalem, or any other issues that have to be dealt with.”

Obama’s interview came just a week after Abbas also appealed directly to the Israeli public, giving a rare interview to the Hebrew press in which he tried to convince the public of his sincerity about peace.

Netanyahu on Thursday gave a number of interviews, including to CNN, ABC and CBS. In these interviews, he tried to convince the American public of the need for direct talks with the PA now, and he also, like Obama, downplayed reports of a crisis over the last year in his ties with the US president.

Obama said in his interview that not only was Netanyahu a “smart and savvy politician,” but the fact that “he is not perceived as a dove can in some ways be helpful.”

Obama said that just as former US president Richard Nixon had been uniquely positioned to make his groundbreaking trip to China because of his anti-communist credentials, so, too, Netanyahu may be positioned to help shepherd in a peace accord, because “any successful peace will have to include the hawks and doves on both sides.”

The president said Netanyahu understood that there was currently a “fairly narrow window of opportunity” because Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were willing “to make concessions and engage in negotiations that can result in peace, but that their time frame in power might be limited if they can’t deliver for their people.”

Obama points to Emanuel, Axelrod as proof that he supports Israel, Jews

Asked about the lack of trust many Israelis had in him and his commitment to Israel, Obama said this was ironic, considering that “I’ve got a chief of staff named Rahm Israel Emanuel, and my top political adviser [David Axelrod] is somebody who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors.”

Obama said his closeness to the American Jewish community “is probably what propelled me to the US Senate,” and that his “knowledge, sympathy and identification with the Jewish experience” is rooted in part with the “historic connection with the African-American freedom movement here in the US, and the civil rights efforts of Jewish Americans, and some of the same impulses that led to the creation of Israel.”

He also said that some of the mistrust of him in Israel stemmed from the suspicion caused by his middle name, Hussein, and that he had actively made overtures to the Muslim world.

“I think that sometimes, particularly in the Middle East, there is a feeling that the friend of my enemy must be my enemy,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that my outreach to the Muslim community is designed precisely to reduce the antagonism and the dangers posed by a hostile Muslim world to Israel and the West.”

Obama said Netanyahu would attest “that the US under my administration has provided more security assistance to Israel than any administration in history, and we have greater security cooperation between our two countries than at any time in our history.

And the single most important threat to Israel – Iran – has been my No. 1 foreign policy priority over the last 18 months. So it’s hard, I think, to look at that track record, and look at my public statements, and in any way think my passion for Israel’s survival, security and its people are in any way diminished.”

Obama is convinced Israel will not make a unilateral strike on Iran

Regarding Iran, Obama said that the US would continually ratchet up the cost to Iran of pursuing its nuclear weapons program, while at the same time “keeping the door open for a diplomatic resolution for this challenge” and not taking any “options off the table.”

Asked whether he was concerned about unilateral Israeli military action, Obama replied, “I think the relationship between the United States and Israel is sufficiently strong, and that neither of us tries to surprise each other, but that we try to coordinate on issues of regional concern. That approach is one that I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to.”

Even with Obama’s obvious overture to the Israeli public, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that Obama had no plans to visit Israel this year. Netanyahu invited him during their meeting on Tuesday.

“It’s not on the books at this point,” Gibbs said.

At a special meeting Wednesday of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Netanyahu characterized his talks with Obama as “very good” and said he expected direct talks with the PA, with the end goal of achieving a demilitarized Palestinian state, to commence “right away.”

“I want to enter direct talks with the Palestinian leadership now,” Netanyahu said he had told Obama.

“I call on Abbas to meet me to begin peace talks so we can fashion a final peace between Israel and its Palestinian leaders.

“Direct negotiations will start right away,” Netanyahu told the audience of over 500 attendees in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. “I hope they will and believe they will very soon.”

Netanyahu to Obama - 'We want Palestinians to have independent life'

In an answer to a question about peace negotiations, Netanyahu alluded obliquely to a possibility that neighborhoods within Jerusalem itself would be up for discussion in the context of peace talks.

“Everybody knows that there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under any peace plan will remain where they are,” Netanyahu said, implying that there could be Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem that might not remain under Israeli rule.

Netanyahu said he had told Obama that he wanted to see a demilitarized Palestinian state that would recognize the State of Israel.

“We don’t want to govern the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said he had stated to Obama. “We want to make sure that they have their own independent, dignified life, but that they don’t threaten the State of Israel.”

He told the group that he had expressed his concern to Obama that areas previously vacated in an attempt to make peace were now being used as staging grounds for terror attacks against Israel.

“Strike one was withdrawal from Lebanon. Strike two: withdrawal from Gaza,” Netanyahu said. “We cannot have a strike three.”

Netanyahu: Israel's biggest challenges are a nuclear Iran and lasting peace

In his remarks, Netanyahu said the two greatest challenges Israel faced were preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and advancing a “secure and prosperous peace” with the Palestinians. He complimented Obama on his efforts to derail Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons with sanctions, but noted, “I cannot tell you that [sanctions] will stop Iran’s nuclear program. It is important to understand that it must be stopped.”

Netanyahu also spoke to the theme of asserting the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

“The Jews will no longer be passive victims of history,” he said to the approval of the gathered crowd. “We are now actors on the stage of history.
We now chart our own collective destiny.”

In addition, he responded to charges of Israeli impropriety in the May 31 Gaza flotilla incident.

“For 2,000 years, the Jews were the perfect victims,” he said. “They may be perfectly moral, but they’re still victims.The purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives. The standard that must be applied to Israel is not perfection, but the standard applied to any other country faced with similar circumstances.”

“I think he covered all the bases,” the Conference’s vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, told The Jerusalem Post after the speech. “He is clearly intent on moving the peace process forward, and is issuing a challenge to Abbas to come forward as well.”

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