WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Thursday ratcheted up pressure on Israel to freeze settlements as he sought to reassure visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of U.S. support for Palestinian statehood.
Hoping to revive stalled peace efforts, Obama held White House talks with Abbas 10 days after hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains at odds with Israel's superpower ally over Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood.
Obama made clear that he would continue to push Netanyahu, who has dismayed Washington and the Palestinians with his resistance to calls for a total freeze on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
I'm a strong believer in a two-state solution, Obama told reporters with Abbas, a Western-backed moderate weakened by Hamas Islamist control of the Gaza Strip, seated at his side.
Obama stressed that Israel's obligation under a 2003 Middle East peace road map includes stopping settlements and making sure that there is a viable Palestinian state. He said the Palestinians had to make more progress in improving their security forces and reducing anti-Israel incitement.
In his first Washington visit since Obama took office in January, Abbas had been expected to make his case for a tougher U.S. approach toward Netanyahu, who heads a new right-leaning Israeli coalition with pro-settler parties at its core.
Netanyahu's government on Thursday spurned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's blunt assertion that all settlement activity must stop, including the natural growth of existing enclaves that Netanyahu has vowed to continue.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev responded by reaffirming Netanyahu's intention to allow some further construction to accommodate the expansion of settler families.
Even as policy differences have exposed a rare U.S.-Israeli rift, it remains unclear how hard Obama is willing to push the Jewish state to make concessions when his administration has yet to complete its Middle East strategy.
Obama sees engagement in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking as crucial to repairing America's image in the Muslim world and drawing moderate Arab states into a united front against Iran.