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Obama, Netanyahu to focus on move to direct talks

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Proximity talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have addressed "core issues" and President Obama is ready to move to direct talks, White House officials said.

Ben Rhodes and Daniel Shapiro, two senior staffers on the White House national security council, spoke last Friday afternoon with reporters ahead of a summit Tuesday between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel and the United States have been pressing the Palestinians to advance to direct talks; one Palestinian condition has been a sign from Israel that it is ready to deal with "core issues," including borders, Jerusalem and refugees. Shapiro suggested that the talks had reached that point.

"We’ve engaged with both sides on all the core issues that are relevant to this conflict," he said. "And we’ve always viewed the proximity talks as a mechanism to get to direct talks, which is where the real negotiations toward agreements and ultimately an agreement that will produce a two-state solution can be achieved."

Shapiro said transitioning to direct talks would be the "main focus" of the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama. The officials did not want to set a timeline, but suggested that Obama wanted talks under way before September, when two deadlines lapse: Netanyahu’s self-imposed partial10-month settlement freeze ends; and the date by which Arab League wants to see the launch of a total settlement freeze as a condition for its continued support of the process.

"We’re, of course, fully aware of a number of events that are taking place in September, whether it is a meeting of the Arab League or the U.N. General Assembly or the West Bank settlement moratorium," Rhodes said. "But again, our focus is on building what really has been some momentum in a number of areas."

Isolating Iran until it makes its nuclear program more transparent also will be on the Netanyahu-Obama agenda.

The two leaders meet after months of tension precipitated in March when Israel announced new building in eastern Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel.

Shapiro and Rhodes denied talk of a "rift." Shapiro described the "incredible richness and intensity and quality of the exchange between our governments in military channels, in political channels, in intelligence channels. That kind of cooperation characterizes a spirit of partnership and strategic alliance that, as Ben said, is extremely important to the United States and our interests and, of course, our values."

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