NEW YORK - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he thinks direct talks with the Palestinians will begin very soon and he predicted they will be "very, very tough."
Before flying to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama, Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that the "time has come" for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to get ready to meet directly with the Israelis "because there is no other way to advance peace."
The Israelis and Palestinians have been holding indirect talks through George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy to the Middle East. Late last week, aides to Obama sounded a hopeful tone, telling reporters that weeks of shuttle diplomacy between the two sides had paid off and "the gaps have narrowed."
"This is going to be a very, very tough negotiation," Netanyahu said in answering a question at a meeting with representatives of Jewish organizations at New York's Plaza Hotel late Wednesday after discussing efforts to promote Middle East peace and the continuing closure of Gaza with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"The sooner the better," the Israeli leader said of the talks. "Direct negotiations must begin right away, and we think that they will."
Netanyahu gets Knicks jersey from Jewish leaders (Photo: Reuters)
After their previous frosty meeting, Obama had warm words about Netanyahu on Tuesday and affirmed the "unbreakable" bond that links the United States and Israel.
Netanyahu said Wednesday "it was a very good meeting with president Obama," adding "America has no better friend, no better ally than the state of Israel."
Later, in an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric, Netanyahu was asked why he was being so positive and whether anything in his talks with Obama had been disappointing.
"You know, you ... you remind me of the Israeli press. They say, 'How come you had a good meeting with President Obama?' Well, because I did. Because we, we actually see eye to eye on ... some central issues. The quest for peace. The danger of Iran. The need to bolster security, for Israel and the region. That's the truth. We do see it. Have we had differences? Of course we have."
"Some awkward moments?" Couric asked. He replied: "Yeah, of course, we've had. So what?"
Earlier, the Israeli leader discussed efforts to promote Middle East peace and the continuing closure of Gaza during a nearly hour-long meeting with Ban at UN headquarters that included a one-on-one discussion.
Netanyahu did not speak to reporters, and UN associate spokesman Farhan Haq issued a very brief statement saying only that they discussed the Middle East peace process, Gaza closures and Lebanon "among other topics."
Netanyahu also met with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and outlined to him Israel's concerns about the rise of an eastern front after the US troops withdraw from Iraq.
Netanyahu expressed concern that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, coupled with the strengthening of Iran might lead to a new "eastern front" against Israel.
Roni Sofer contributed to the report