Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday called for an immediate resumption of peace talks with Palestinians and pledged more steps to improve economic conditions in Palestinian areas.
Netanyahu reiterated to an assembly of Jewish groups his view that peace negotiations should begin with no preconditions. He made no new proposals on constraining Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Palestinian officials insist that Israel freeze settlement activity before peace talks resume.
"I believe there is no time to waste; we need to move toward peace with a sense of urgency and with a sense of purpose," he said in a speech to the Jewish Federations of North America. "I want to make this clear: My goal is not to have endless negotiations. My goal is not negotiations for the sake of negotiations. My goal is to achieve a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians."
He also said Israel is willing to make "great concessions for peace," without sacrificing its security.
Netanyahu said there has been an "unmatched boom" of economic activity in the West Bank, "and this has made life better for ordinary Palestinians. For the first time in years, businesses, banks, industry is sprouting _ restaurants, theaters, shopping malls are overflowing. Thousands and thousands of Palestinian jobs are being created. I think we can do a lot more and I intend to do a lot more."
The prime minister said his government should be credited with taking extraordinary steps to limit Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank.
"No Israeli government has been so willing to restrain settlement activities as part of an effort to relaunch peace talks," he said. Addressing by name the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu added: "Let us seize the moment to reach an historic agreement. Let us begin talks immediately."
Abbas announced last week that he would not run for another term in an election scheduled for January, citing deadlocked efforts to revive peace talks.
The Palestinians insist that they will not engage in peace talks until Israel meets its commitment to freezing _ not just limiting _ settlement activity on lands the Palestinians want as part of a future Palestinian state. The Obama administration says it does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton argued during a visit to the Mideast last week that Israeli restraint could be seen as a first step toward a negotiated halt to settlement activity.
Clinton drew the ire of Arab nations by applauding what she called an unprecedented Israeli offer of restraint.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday that the peace process had reached a "defining moment." If Israel does not accept creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, "we will have to take other steps," Erekat said in an Associated Press telephone interview. He would not elaborate, but he ruled out either dismantling the Palestinian Authority or declaring a Palestinian state.
At the State Department, spokesman Ian C. Kelly said the administration's special envoy for Mideast peace, George Mitchell, has no immediate plans to return to the region to continue his push for a resumption of peace talks.
Netanyahu also met privately with Obama for more than an hour Monday evening in the Oval Office. The White House says Obama reaffirmed his country's strong commitment to Israel's security, and that the two leaders discussed Iran's nuclear ambitions and the Middle East peace process.
Before sitting down with Netanyahu, Obama and members of his senior staff visited with Jewish leaders from across the country who were attending a private reception at the White House.
A statement issued by the office of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he was meeting in Washington with a range of U.S. defense officials. It quoted Barak as saying Israel is "doing all it can" to renew peace talks with the Palestinians.
"Israel must act with all its strength to reach agreements with its neighbors," Barak was quoted as telling U.S. officials. "It's crucial to enlist President Obama and the United States to the effort of opening negotiations. The United States is the world's leading power and Obama's presidency has a rare opportunity to reach peace. All other alternatives are much worse."
The statement said Barak was to meet later Monday with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Associated Press writer Mark Lavie in Jerusalem contributed to this report.