Obama Urges Movement On Mideast Peace
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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