WASHINGTON — As unrest sweeps the Middle East, it's more urgent than ever to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, President Barack Obama said Tuesday after meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The meeting occurred even as the U.S. condemned the announcement that new Israeli apartment buildings have been approved for a contested part of Jerusalem. Palestinians refuse to restart negotiations unless Israel stops building housing in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, occupied territory that the Palestinians claim for their future state.
Obama didn't speak about the housing announcement when he addressed reporters after his Oval Office meeting with Peres, Israel's ceremonial president and longtime advocate of peace talks.
Obama said the two had an extensive discussion about developments in the Middle East, where uprisings have toppled longtime rulers, including key U.S. and Israeli ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
"He and I both share a belief that this is both a challenge and an opportunity," Obama said. "That with the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it's more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis."
Peres, too, said that it was necessary to return to peace talks.
"We don't want to be in controversy with the Muslim world. We want to make friends with them. We want to have peace," Peres told reporters outside the White House.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2008, reviving briefly in September 2010 but collapsing again when Israel ended a moratorium on settlement construction.
The U.S. wants peace talks to restart and Obama had pushed for a deal by September 2011. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is expected to be in Washington next month.
Yet several times Israelis have announced new housing developments at awkward times for the U.S., most notably just over a year ago when another building project in east Jerusalem was announced during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama left it to State Department spokesman Mark Toner to condemn Monday's announcement that Jerusalem officials were giving preliminary approval for 942 new apartments in a Jewish development in the city's contested eastern sector.
"We're deeply concerned about the announcement of the approval for these units," Toner said. "We believe that through good-faith direct negotiations the parties should mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties. Ultimately, a lack of resolution to this conflict, harms Israel, harms the Palestinians and harms the interests of the United States and the international community."