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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared that he wanted to immediately resume negotiations with the Palestinians Monday and rejected the charge that he wasn't interested in reaching an agreement.
"We need to move toward peace with a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose," Netanyahu told the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly during a trip to Washington. "My goal is not negotiations for the sake of negotiations; My goal is to achieve a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, and soon. I cannot be more emphatic on this point."
Critics of Netanyahu, particularly in the Arab world, have accused the prime minister of not being sincere in his desire to reach a peace agreement which would include Israeli concessions.
Netanyahu heckled during GA speech:
Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that he's willing to start talking, and the Israelis have been pointing to the Palestinians as setting the precondition of a total settlement freeze as holding up progress.
"But to get to a peace agreement we need to start negotiating," he said to a receptive crowd. "Let's get on with it. Let's move."
He delivered a personal message to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, urging him, "Let us begin talks immediately ... let us seize the opportunity to reach a historic agreement."
He also referred to Israeli steps, mentioning the agreement Israel is working out with the United States to control settlement activity.
"No Israeli government has been so willing to restrain settlement activity as part of an effort to relaunch peace talks," he said.
Netanyahu also defended his own moves toward the Palestinians, including improvement in the economy, freedom of movement and access, and the partial settlement freeze.
"With the support of the United States, peace can become a reality," Netanyahu said, ahead of a meeting with US President Barack Obama Monday night.
The role of the US in any process has long been controversial in Israel, where the sense of US pressure on Jerusalem over the settlements under the Obama administration has contributed to tension between the two capitals.
Obama was due to address the GA himself on Tuesday, but canceled to attend the memorial service for slain soldiers at Fort Hood.
The US president did speak with leaders of the Jewish Federation at a hastily arranged White House reception later Monday.
While many conference-goers expressed understanding of Obama's decision, and said they looked forward to hearing from his replacement, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, others questioned why Obama didn't make an appearance at the conference Monday instead of holding meetings at the White House.
Several suggested that Obama was taking advantage of a packed schedule to bow out of a speech that, originally intended to burnish his image among American Jews and Israelis concerned with his Middle East posture, would likely touch on points unpalatable to the Arab world.
"Hillary had her wonderful experience in the Middle East in the last week, and maybe they felt they didn't want to give a speech satisfying what people here want to hear from him and then have to roll it book the next day," said one Washington-based Jewish leader at the conference. "If Emmanuel says something and people in the Arab world get upset about it, they can backtrack from it."
But another Jewish organizational official defended the administration's choice, saying any appearance by the president out of the White House would have taken a much larger chunk of time out of his schedule.
"The Jewish community needs to be a little more humble. It's not like we're on the verge of a major breakthrough in the Middle East peace process today," the official said, adding that the president's priorities right now were domestic issues like health care and the economy. "We need to be sensitive to the fact that what is going for the Jews is a strong America."
Despite differences with the US on the timeframe of dealing with the Iran issue, and particularly how quickly to move ahead with implementing sanctions, Netanyahu expressed support for Obama's action toward Tehran in his GA address.
"We must stop a nuclear Iran from achieving its ambitions," he stressed.
In his speech, Netanyahu also thanked Obama for "resolutely opposing" the "twisted" Goldstone Report.
He described the UN-sponsored report, which accused Israel of war crimes for its actions against Hamas in Gaza last winter, as one that "seeks to deprive us of the right to self defense" and stressed, "We are proud of the IDF. We are proud of our sons and daughters who are defending our country each day."
To deal with the threat of Iran, Netanyahu pushed for greater alternative energy technology to decrease Western dependence on oil.
"We must stop a nuclear Iran from achieving its ambitions," he emphasized.
The most extended applause came, however, when Netanyahu endorsed the principle of religious pluralism. The US Jewish community has often been at odds over the recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which comprise the vast majority of American Jewry.
"Any Jew of any denomination will always have a right to come home to the Jewish state," he said.
Not everyone in the audience approved of the PM's delivery, however. Soon after Netanyahu began speaking, a protester held up a banner and began yelling, "Shame on you, shame on you!"
The crowd booed as the heckler was taken out of the room, shouting "Peace for all people. Peace for all people. Shame on you."
Netanyahu joked to the crowd, saying "I was better received in the UN than here."
After his speech to the GA, Netanyahu left for Capitol Hill, where he met with 20 senators including the majority and minority leaders. In the evening he met with Obama.
Details of the meeting, which was closed to the media, were finalized only on Sunday, a move which sparked media speculation that the relationship between the two leaders was in crisis.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu leaves Washington for Paris where on Wednesday he plans to meet with French President Nicholas Sarkozy.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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