Middle East

White House Struggles To Restart Mideast Peace Talks

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A boy waves a flag during a protest of Maale Adumim i

A boy waves a flag during a protest of Maale Adumim, West Bank, a Jewish settlement east of Jerusalem. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
A boy waves a flag during a protest of Maale Adumim

A boy waves a flag during a protest of Maale Adumim, West Bank, a Jewish settlement east of Jerusalem.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

President Obama is making a personal bid to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He is meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York, where world leaders are gathered for the U.N. General Assembly.

Getting talks started has been a serious challenge for his administration. Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been trying to pave the way for a formal restart of peace talks.

The trouble is that the Israelis have rejected the U.S. call for a Jewish settlement freeze, and Palestinians argue that there is no point in starting negotiations as long as Israel continues to build in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"We have no grand expectations out of one meeting," spokesman Robert Gibbs says, "except to continue, as the president talked about from his very first day in office, continue the hard work, day-to-day diplomacy that has to be done to seek a lasting peace."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says he's counting on the Obama administration to remain firm with Israel on the issue of Jewish settlements.

"The settlements the Israelis are building are taking place on the same land where we are supposed to have a Palestinian state," Erekat says. "So it is either settlements or peace, and the Israeli government has the choice. They have chosen all the time settlements, and this must stop."

The Israeli government has been suggesting a temporary moratorium on some construction, but it would not cover some 3,000 West Bank housing units already approved. The Israelis say there will be no freeze on construction in Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem is basically a separate issue," says Jonathan Peled, an Israeli embassy spokesman. "It's not part of this agreement, and it is an issue which should be discussed directly between the Palestinians and Israel once we reach the final settlement negotiations."

Peled says the Israelis are ready for talks, and there shouldn't be any preconditions.

Palestinians complain that the Israelis are just trying to shift the blame on them, and that the Netanyahu government hasn't shown any interest in tackling all the so-called final status issues, including the future of Jerusalem.

In the meantime, Arab countries that have been asked to make gestures to Israel are waiting to see how the dispute over settlements plays out.

In these circumstances, Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller says Tuesday's meeting is the key to an empty room.

"The administration's approach for the last six months has been to try to get the Israelis to agree to a partial settlement freeze and the Arabs to agree to a partial normalization," Miller says. "The problem is they haven't succeeded, and even if they could succeed, the real issue for me is what do these things have to do with the ultimate objective, which is how to get the Israelis and Palestinians into a conflict-ending agreement?"

Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for the State Department, says the president might have to decide soon how committed he is to reaching an agreement and put some ideas on the table.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana has been suggesting one option: Make it clear to Israelis and Palestinians that if they can't reach a two-state solution in two years, the United Nations should just declare a Palestinian state and make it a U.N. member.

The Israelis reject any talk of deadlines. The Palestinians say two years is too long.

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