JERUSALEM – Israel's prime minister headed to Washington on Sunday for a high-stakes meeting with President Barack Obama about U.S.-led Mideast peace efforts, vowing to maintain a tough line in the face of heavy international pressure to begin making concessions to the Palestinians.
Benjamin Netanyahu's defiant tone set the stage for what could be a difficult meeting Monday with Obama. But with the clock ticking toward an April target date for a preliminary agreement, the Israeli leader could soon be forced to begin laying out a clearer vision for a future peace deal with the Palestinians.
Shortly before takeoff, Netanyahu vowed to "stand steadfast" on Israeli interests.
"In recent years, the state of Israel has been under various pressures," he said. "We have rejected them in the face of the unprecedented storm and unrest in the region and are maintaining stability and security. This is what has been and what will be."
After two decades of intermittent negotiations, including five years of deadlock following Netanyahu's return to power in 2009, the United States relaunched peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians last July. The sides agreed to a nine-month target for forging a final peace deal.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has traveled to the region more than 10 times for meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He has also talked to them on the phone repeatedly. But with no signs of breakthrough, Kerry has been forced to scale back his objectives.
The initial goal of a final deal by April was later replaced by more modest U.S. aspirations of brokering the contours of an agreement. In recent weeks, there were expectations that Kerry would present his own ideas for such a framework, with Abbas and Netanyahu agreeing to continue talks for up to a year on that basis.
But the gaps between Abbas and Netanyahu remain wide, and it's not certain Kerry will present a framework in such conditions.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Kerry said Netanyahu's White House meeting should not be viewed as a "showdown." He said conversations would continue with both sides, "and hopefully, over the next weeks, we can reach some kind of understanding about how to negotiate a final status agreement."
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in 1967 — for an independent state. They have demanded that Israel agree to base the final borders with a future Palestine on the pre-1967 lines, with small land swaps that would allow Israel to keep some of the Jewish settlements it has built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has refused to recognize the 1967 lines as a starting point. He wants to retain an Israeli presence in a strategic area of the West Bank along the border with Jordan and keep large blocs of settlements closest to Israel. He has given no indication as to how much territory he is willing to cede and he has rejected any division of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital.
Netanyahu has also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. The Palestinians reject this out of hand, saying it would undermine the rights of displaced Palestinian refugees who claim properties in what is now Israel as well as the rights of Israel's Arab minority.
Kerry apparently made little headway, most recently at a meeting with Abbas in Paris. The Palestinians fear the emerging American proposal will largely side with Israel, particularly on the Jewish state and by including only a vague mention of Palestinian "aspirations" in Jerusalem, rather than a specific reference to east Jerusalem.
"It's clear that Secretary Kerry has found out he cannot bridge the gap between the two positions if he insists on the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which we will never accept," said Hana Amireh, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, part of Abbas' inner circle.
"Thus he is asking President Obama to intervene, and we know that when President Obama intervenes, there will be more pressure on us," he added.
Abbas is scheduled to visit the White House on March 17, and Israel is expected to release 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners at the end of the month under a pledge made at the outset of the negotiations. What happens after that remains unclear.
But ahead of his visit, Netanyahu has stuck to his hard line. "I will never compromise on Israel's security. Never. And never apologize for the fact that the Jewish people are living in their ancestral homeland," he told a gathering of Jewish American leaders last week.
Behind the rhetoric, however, Netanyahu is facing intense international pressure to begin making concessions. The international community has shown growing impatience with Israeli settlements on lands claimed by the Palestinians.
Kerry has said the construction raises questions about Israel's commitment to peace, and warned a burgeoning international movement to boycott Israel over its settlement policies could gain steam. Kerry has also warned that unless a Palestinian state is set up, Israel stands to become a binational state — in which Arabs could soon outnumber Jews.
Yoaz Hendel, an ex-communications director for Netanyahu, said his former boss is well aware of the dangers of a binational state and is far more pragmatic than many believe.
But he said Netanyahu will delay all tough decisions for as long as possible, and that his pragmatism has limits. He said Netanyahu will never agree to return to the 1967 lines due to ideological and security concerns. He also said that Netanyahu would be constrained by opposition from Israeli hard-liners, his base of support.
Hendel described Netanyahu's goal as trying to keep "maximum land and minimum Palestinians" under Israeli control. For that reason, he said Netanyahu would eventually try to reach an interim deal that falls short of a comprehensive peace.
"I know that he's trying to figure out how to go out from this dead end," Hendel said. "He's not talking about a peace agreement. He's not selling dreams. But he's also not talking about the status quo."