Netanyahu predicts direct talks with Palestinians

Israel's prime minister said today he believed direct talks with the Palestinians would begin very soon and he predicted they would be "very, very tough".

Before flying to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that the "time has come" for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to get ready to meet the Israelis directly "because there is no other way to advance peace".

The Israelis and Palestinians have been holding indirect talks through George Mitchell, Mr Obama's special envoy to the Middle East. Late last week, aides to Mr 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," Mr Netanyahu said in New York early today.

He was answering a question at a meeting with representatives of Jewish organisations at the Plaza Hotel after discussing efforts to promote Middle East peace and the continuing closure of Gaza with United Nations 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."

After their previous frosty meeting, Mr Obama had warm words about Mr Netanyahu on Tuesday and affirmed the "unbreakable" bond that linked the US and Israel.

Mr Netanyahu said yesterday "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, Mr Netanyahu was asked why he was being so positive and whether anything in his talks with Mr 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?" Ms 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 Mr Ban at the UN headquarters.

Mr Netanyahu did not speak to reporters and UN associate spokesman Farhan Haq said only that they discussed the Middle East peace process, Gaza closures and Lebanon "among other topics".

The United Nations is part of the international Quartet - along with the US, the European Union and Russia - that has been trying to promote Middle East peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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