Obama Makes Little Progress On Mideast Peace

President Obama with Israeli and Palestinian leaders i

President Obama presides over a handshake Tuesday in New York between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama with Israeli and Palestinian leaders

President Obama presides over a handshake Tuesday in New York between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama brought Israeli and Palestinian leaders together Tuesday for a handshake, but he came no closer to reviving long-stalled peace negotiations.

After a brief three-way discussion in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama issued what has become a familiar American call for all sides to work harder.

The president called the talks "productive" and said he will send his special Mideast envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, back to the region next week for talks with negotiators for the two sides.

But Obama's statement at the beginning of the meeting revealed his frustration at the lack of progress. "Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations," Obama said. "It is time to move forward."

Speaking with reporters later, Mitchell argued that more was accomplished than meets the eye. He noted that this was the first top-level meeting between Israelis and Palestinians in more than a year, something that he says didn't seem possible even a few months ago. Mitchell said the parties agreed to make another effort. "We're going to enter into an intensive, yet brief, period of discussion in an effort to re-launch negotiations," the envoy said.

Obama said he expects a progress report by the middle of next month.

"It's a testimony to Mitchell's continued vitality," says analyst Nathan Brown, "but it doesn't sound like much was accomplished."

Mitchell has made at least five trips to the region since he was appointed as the administration's top negotiator on the Middle East, but he returned to Washington essentially empty-handed last week.

All sides had worked in advance to dampen expectations about the meeting, held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session.

Brown, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, says the result is disappointing for the administration's Mideast policy: After carefully crafting a policy that sought a freeze on Israeli settlement building in return for normalizing relations with Arab states, he says, the administration got nowhere.

"You're dealing with a right-wing Israeli government that doesn't want to make concessions, and a Palestinian government that doesn't represent all the Palestinian people," Brown says.

With the two parties so far apart on the issues, reporters asked Mitchell why Obama chose to take such a public step in bringing the leaders together. Mitchell said the president wanted to convey "his sense of urgency, his impatience, his view that there is here a unique opportunity at this moment in time — that may pass if there is further delay."

Mitchell has tried since early this year to get Israel to agree to a freeze on building settlements in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel has said it would accept only a moratorium on some construction in the West Bank and ruled out any freeze in Jerusalem.

Palestinian officials have said that there is no point in negotiating if Israel would not stop building, saying that Israel is, in effect, "colonizing" the occupied territory. The Palestinians recently proposed a plan to move toward a Palestinian state within two years, independent of any negotiations with Israel.

But the Palestinians remain deeply divided, with Hamas controlling Gaza, and Abbas' Fatah Party controlling the West Bank.

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