Obama to seek Israel PM support for peace framework

President Barack Obama will push Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a framework for extending Middle East peace talks Monday, but could face an uphill battle against a reluctant premier.

When the president and the prime minister meet at the White House, their discussion could determine whether Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians have a future beyond April 29.

And the issue of Jewish settlements looked likely to feature high on the agenda after Obama bluntly warned that, without a peace deal, more construction would expose Israel to an international backlash.

But the crisis in the Ukraine looked set to overshadow the visit, with Washington locked in a tense showdown with Moscow in what is developing into the biggest transatlantic crisis since the Cold War.

In their Oval Office talks, Obama will push Netanyahu to accept a framework for a conclusive round of peace talks which has been pieced together by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Washington had previously aimed to reach a final status agreement by April 29 but, with no deal in sight, the framework is an attempt to extend the deadline until the year's end.

It will be Obama's most significant entry into peacemaking since 2010 when his first attempt at Middle East mediation collapsed after just three weeks in a bitter dispute over settlements.

"There's a sense that the negotiations have reached a point where only presidential engagement, direct presidential engagement, can move them forward," said Haim Malka, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The as-yet-unpublished framework, which addresses the most nettlesome issues of the conflict such as borders, security and the future status of Jerusalem, was central to Netanyahu's morning meeting with Kerry, a senior Israeli official said.

Analysts and commentators said Netanyahu was leaning towards accepting the framework, but so far the Palestinians have rejected any attempt to extend the deadline, denouncing Kerry's ideas as biased in Israel's favour and unworkable.

On Sunday, Netanyahu vowed he would "insist on Israel's vital interests" and withstand pressure.

But on arrival, he found Obama had also laid the ground for their meeting, telling Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg that without a peace deal, "continued aggressive settlement construction" would expose Israel to further international isolation.

The question of settlement construction was further hammered home Monday with the publication of figures showing new construction starts in West Bank settlements increased by 123.7 percent in 2013.

"It's official, the Netanyahu government is committed to only one thing: building settlements," settlement watchdog Peace Now said in response.

Unconfirmed reports suggest Washington will demand a partial freeze on construction in isolated settlements outside the major West Bank blocs in a bid to ensure the Palestinians remain at the negotiating table.

- 'Unwelcome intimidation tactics'-

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat hailed Obama's words, telling Voice of Palestine radio that idea that continued settlement would bring Israel security was "an illusion."

"Netanyahu needs to understand this. This is the truth," said Erakat, who is to fly to Washington for more talks on Tuesday.

But Dani Dayan, the self-styled foreign envoy of the settlers, expressed outrage over Obama's "gross misunderstanding" of regional realities, urging Netanyahu "to stand firm and reject the unwelcome intimidation tactics" being used by Washington.

Netanyahu is "in a position now where he has to make a decision," said Alan Elsner, vice president of J Street, a US-Jewish lobby group.

"It's not easy for him because there are political costs -- but the cost of not moving forward is much greater for Israel."

On Tuesday, Netanyahu will address the annual policy conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC (America Israeli Public Affairs Committee), focusing largely on his deep skepticism over the talks with Iran.

The Israeli leader sees the diplomatic opening by Iran's Hassan Rouhani as nothing but a charm offensive, but with Obama keen to see the diplomatic process run by the P5+1 play out, Israel's protests are likely to fall on deaf ears.