Visiting U.S., Netanyahu Faces Pressure For Peace

The Obama administration is trying once again to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to resume. The talks that were launched in September fell apart quickly over the issue of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank. A Palestinian negotiator says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the key to a resumption of talks and has so far slammed the door. U.S. officials are still trying to persuade Netanyahu, during his trip to the U.S. this week, to continue a housing slowdown to let negotiations proceed.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

U.S. officials, meantime, are still trying to broker a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This week they will be meeting here in the U.S. with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netnanyahu, who will be visiting. And the Americans will be asking themselves, will the Obama administration's Israeli-Palestinian peace process go down as the shortest in history, or will the U.S. be able to revive the talks. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.S. is committed to Israel's security, but thinks the best way the U.S. can help is to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That was a message Vice President Joe Biden took to New Orleans where he met, yesterday, with Israels prime minister and addressed the Jewish Federations of North America.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: There's no substitute for direct face to face negotiations leading eventually to states for two peoples secure - the Jewish state of Israel, and the viable, independent state of Palestine.

KELEMEN: Prime Minister Netanyahu is to address that conference today. His aides say he will focus on his concerns about Iran, an issue that dominated his talks with Biden.

He is to meet later in the week with secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is trying to revive Israeli Palestinian peace talks, which broke down just weeks after she launched them.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says his side won't return to the table unless Netanyahu renews a moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.

Mr. SAAB EREKAT (Palestinian negotiator): Prime Minister Netanyahu has the key to negotiations in his hands. Now he's closed the door, I cannot get in. When he stops settlements he will open the door and I will get in, and that's the truth, the choice is his, settlements or peace? He cannot have both.

KELEMEN: Arab states had given the U.S. a brief window to resolve this, but Erekat says that they are willing to give U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchells team two to three more weeks to persuade Netanyahu to further restrict settlement activity. In public, Israeli officials have held firm. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon recently told NPR the focus on the settlement issue is a mistake.

Deputy Foreign Minister DANNY AYALON (Israel): And I say it in hindsight, because the 10 months moratorium were not used by the Palestinians in good faith to enter into negotiations. They wasted the time. And only when the moratorium is done they say we are willing to come to the table if you extend it even more. This is not a serious approach. This is extortion.

KELEMEN: The Israelis have since called on Palestinians to make gestures to Israel for instance recognizing it as a Jewish state. Saeb Erekat, in a speech to the Middle East Institute last week, made clear that while hes committed to U.S. mediated talks, he can only go so far.

Mr. EREKAT: We want the administration to succeed. We want Senator Mitchell to succeed, and tell us what can we do to make him succeed - short of asking us to join the Zionist movement or to legalize settlements. Thats it.

KELEMEN: And if the Obama administration cant succeed, he says Palestinians are looking into other options such as going to the United Nations to try to win recognition of a Palestinian state. The U.S. is discouraging that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to NPR's MORNING EDITION.

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