Obama Urges Movement On Mideast Peace

President Obama challenged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to find a way forward on peace in the region. In New York Tuesday, Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held their first three-way meeting.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Obama tried to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks today. He said it is past time to discuss starting negotiations and time to move forward. He met with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the president is trying to overcome a big obstacle in the Israelis' refusal to stop building in settlements and the Palestinians' refusal to negotiate until that happens.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Obama did manage to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas together in the same room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and orchestrate a handshake. He also delivered a clear message.

President BARACK OBAMA: Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward. We have to summon the will to break the deadlock that has trapped generations of Israelis and Palestinians in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering. We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back.

KELEMEN: Israel has rejected a U.S. call for a settlement freeze and the Palestinians have balked at negotiations without that sort of action. But the president insisted his administration has made progress.

Pres. OBAMA: Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security, but they need to do more to stop incitement and to move forward with negotiations. Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians and discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity. But they need to translate these discussions into real action on this and other issues.

KELEMEN: President Obama's language on the settlement issue was noticeably softer than the administration's previous line. He talked about restraining Jewish settlement and didn't mention a settlement freeze, though his special envoy George Mitchell has been working for weeks on that issue. Asked if the U.S. is dropping that now, Mitchell insisted that the U.S. hasn't changed its position or its focus.

Mr. GEORGE MITCHELL (U.S. Special Envoy for the Middle East): Our objective all along has been to relaunch meaningful final-status negotiations in a context that offered a prospect for success. We have never identified the steps requested as ends in themselves. We have always made clear that they are means to an end, the end being the relaunching of negotiations on permanent status.

KELEMEN: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu came out of the meeting saying there was a general agreement that the peace process has to be resumed without preconditions. Palestinians say they weren't calling for preconditions, but do still want to see Israel meet its obligations and stop building on land they hope will be part of a future Palestinian state. As for the U.S., George Mitchell now says the settlement issue should not be an obstacle to negotiations.

Mr. MITCHELL: We do not believe in preconditions. We do not impose them and we urge others not to impose preconditions.

KELEMEN: Mitchell said that the fact that the president met with the Israelis and Palestinians even though formal talks have not been revived yet is a sign of how seriously he takes the issue. The envoy said the tone of the meeting was cordial though at times blunt as President Obama tried to instill a sense of urgency about the need to work toward a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.

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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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