Settlements Top Obama Meeting With Palestinian

President Obama holds talks at the White House with visiting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting comes as the White House is urging Israel to halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank. Israel, however, is resistant to a freeze.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The president of the Palestinian Authority is meeting with President Obama at the White House this afternoon. High on the agenda is how to revive a peace process that would eventually lead to a Palestinian state. One difficult facet of the peace negotiations involves Israeli construction on land that could become part of a future Palestine.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the Obama administration has made its position clear on that matter.

MICHELE KELEMEN: On the eve of the White House meeting, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas heard some encouraging words from the Obama administration when it comes to the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said President Obama has been firm with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the subject.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): The president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements, not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interest of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease.

KELEMEN: It was her strongest comment on the issue to date, ruling out even what she referred to as natural growth, the expansion of existing settlements to account for a rising population.

One former U.S. Middle East negotiator, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center, says Clinton is shutting down the loopholes for the Israeli government.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center): The secretary of state's comments suggests to me that they're not going to be nickled and dimed on this issue, that they intend to ask for, insist on, and perhaps even impose accountability on a comprehensive settlement (unintelligible).

KELEMEN: But the Israelis haven't agreed to this, as Mark Regev made clear today. He's the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): The issue of the existing settlements is on the agenda in the peace talks between us and the Palestinians. And the status of those settlements, their fate will be determined in peace talks between us and the Palestinians when we get to the final status issues, like borders and so forth. At the moment, we say, in the interim, the people living in those settlements are entitled to have a normal life.

KELEMEN: Making this issue so central, the U.S. policy is risky, according to Miller, who wrote the book "The Much Too Promised Land." He says it will be difficult for the Obama administration to force Israelis to accept a full settlement freeze, unless the U.S. can persuade Arabs states to make some gestures to Israel.

Mr. MILLER: If the administration strategy is the quid pro quo, that is to say we'll push for comprehensive, no nonsense freeze on settlements, but you need to start doing concrete things in the real world to show that you can reach out to the Israelis, now we have a strategy. If the president can produce that in a significant way and get something from the Arabs, his chances of getting something from the Israelis are going to be much higher.

KELEMEN: Before going to Cairo to give a speech to the Muslim world, President Obama is to travel next week to Saudi Arabia, which came up with the Arab Peace Initiative back in 2002. That calls for normalized ties with Israel only after Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement on a viable Palestinian state and find a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

The Obama administration says it will be seeking concrete gestures from all sides to improve the chances of peace talks.

Sabri Saidam, an aide to the Palestinian Authority president, says the Palestinians like what they're hearing from the Obama team so far, particularly on the issue of settlements.

Dr. SABRI SAIDAM (Adviser, President Mahmoud Abbas): The American administration was very clear. We have seen it in the eyes and words of Hillary Clinton and President Obama. So I think the international community would have to say one thing: enough with occupation, we have had enough rhetoric, we have had enough promises, and time to move with deeds and clear results on the ground.

KELEMEN: The problem for Abbas is that while he's trying to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians, his Fatah movement controls only the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip is in the hands of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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