Washington (CNN) - The White House chief of staff Tuesday reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel and said the dispute over settlements should not keep the Israelis and Palestinians from holding peace talks.
"No one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the goal of a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world," Rahm Emanuel told participants at a conference of the Jewish Federations of North America.
He urged Israelis and Palestinians to hold peace negotiations soon to address key "final status" issues of security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. But he added that that "unilateral actions should be avoided and cannot dictate the outcome," a pointed reference to continued settlement activity by Israel.
Emanuel filled in for President Barack Obama, who canceled his scheduled appearance before the group to attend the Fort Hood memorial service. He reiterated statements made by Obama stressing the "unbreakable" bond between the United States and Israel.
Emanuel pushed back against critics who say Obama is turning his back on Israel by engaging with the Arab and Muslim world. Obama's motives are "just the opposite," he said, adding, "It is only through dialogue that we can achieve lasting peace that Israel seeks.
"As this administration has sought to engage the region, there are some who suggest this implies a diminished level of support for Israel," he said. "That is not the intent and that is not the case and never will be."
He warned about the dangers of Israel abandoning efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, saying that a two-state solution is critical to preserving Israel's identity as a Jewish state.
"Demographics cannot be denied," he said, nothing that without a neighboring Palestinian state Israel would have to "attempt to preserve a democratic state, a Jewish state, when Jews will soon be a minority west of the Jordan River.
While acknowledging the peace process is difficult, Emanuel said, "The path towards peace is not one Israel should be asked to walk alone."
The United States will remain actively engaged and will "stand by Israel as one true friend as it takes steps toward peace," he said.
Emanuel spoke of his family's roots in Israel and the "privileged point of view" he gained by seeing Israel "as a homeland." He noted that he will be taking his son and nephew to Israel to celebrate their bar mitzvahs this spring.
He also touched on domestic issues, saying that last weekend's vote by the House of Representatives on health care legislation brought the United States "closer than ever to achieving" health care reform. He began his remarks by calling for a moment of silence for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting.
His speech came a day after Obama met with leaders from the Jewish Federations as well as with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed the group Monday.
In his remarks, Netanyahu called for an immediate resumption of peace talks with Palestinians, saying his goal "is to achieve a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, and soon."
"Let us seize the moment to reach an historic agreement; let us begin talks immediately," he said.