The White House praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conditional endorsement Sunday of a Palestinian state as an "important step forward" in the Middle East peace process, even as Palestinian leaders condemned the prime minister's terms as unreasonable.
The conservative Israeli leader for the first time conditionally endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state. Speaking near Tel Aviv, he said Israel would be ready to accept such a state provided the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, as well as demilitarize their territories and offer security guarantees for Israel.
"The president welcomes the important step forward in Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a written statement. "The president is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples. He believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel's security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations for a viable state, and he welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu's endorsement of that goal."
Sunday's address was widely seen as a response to Obama's address to the Muslim world from Cairo more than a week ago.
However, while Netanyahu said he supports the "idea of a regional peace that (Obama) is leading," he by no means echoed Obama's talking points on the matter.
In contrast to Obama, Netanyahu clearly shifted the burden for peace away from the Jewish state and onto the Palestinian people. He pushed back on criticism of Israeli settlements and the suggestion that his country is not doing all it can to achieve peace, while calling for Jerusalem to remain the "united capital" of Israel.
"We want peace," Netanyahu declared Sunday. He said the Palestinians, though, prevent peace by refusing to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people and attacking Israelis.
"The closer we get to an agreement with them, the further they retreat and raise demands that are inconsistent with a true desire to end the conflict," he said.
Netanyahu made clear in his address that his administration sees Palestinian cooperation, not Israeli cooperation, as the missing link in the peace process -- potentially setting the stage for more delays and finger-pointing.
Palestinians did not react warmly to Netanyahu's address, despite the optimistic tone of the statement out of the White House Sunday.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Sunday that Netanyahu "failed to set the stage for negotiations," accusing the prime minister of putting unreasonable demands on the Palestinian people and refusing to endorse a comprehensive settlement freeze.
At the same time, the newspaper reported that Israeli conservatives are accusing Netanyahu of succumbing to Obama's demands for Palestinian statehood. Obama said in Cairo that a two-state solution is the "only resolution."
Given the mixed reaction, it is unclear in the near term whether the speech will trigger the kind of progress the White House seeks or heal the perceived rift between Washington and Jerusalem.
Netanyahu also did not explicitly endorse Obama's call for an absolute halt to settlement growth that includes a halt on "natural growth" of existing settlements.
Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel has no plans to build additional settlements or expand existing communities but that the settlers must be allowed to live "normal" lives.
He said the settlers are not the "enemies of peace" but are "our brothers and sisters" -- and he said the idea that territorial withdrawal will bring peace has "not stood the test of reality," as every withdrawal is met with "massive waves of terror."
Obama's remarks on Israeli settlements took a much firmer tone.
"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," Obama said in Cairo. "This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
Though some have suggested Obama is putting the extra pressure on Israel in order to appease the Arab world, Vice President Biden said Sunday that's not the case. After all, Obama called on Palestinians to abandon violence in his address and described as "unbreakable" the bond between the two countries.
"He made it clear we're not distancing ourself from Israel," Biden said on NBC's "Meet the Press. "(Palestinians) have to stop this baiting of their population, they have to stop incitement. ... They have to do something more than just talk about normalizing relations with Israel."