Obama Opens New Round Of Mideast Peace Talks
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And we begin this hour at the White House, where President Barack Obama began a new round of Middle East peace talks today. He's holding bilateral meetings with the leaders of Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian authority.
The president's goal is to start a process that will ultimately resolve the big issues: settlements, borders, Jerusalem, refugees, so that a two state solution can be implemented. Middle East peace efforts like this have been failing for decades. And this time around, negotiators face plenty of challenges.
Indeed, four Israeli settlers, including a pregnant woman, were killed in the West Bank just yesterday. The militant Islamist movement Hamas has claimed responsibility.
President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu interrupted their meeting today to condemn the attacks. The president said this was an example of what the negotiators are now up against.
President BARACK OBAMA: But I want everybody to be very clear, the United States is going to be unwavering in its support of Israel's security. And we are going to push back against these kinds of terrorist activities. And so the message should go out to Hamas and everybody else who is taking credit for these heinous crimes, that this is not going to stop us.
SIEGEL: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also issued a statement condemning the attacks.
Joining us now from the White House to discuss the talks is NPR's Mara Liasson. And, Mara, it's hard to be optimistic about yet another round of Middle East peace talks. Is there any reason to think this time will be any different?
MARA LIASSON: Well, there's certainly a lot of reasons to think that they won't. There's a tremendous lack of trust between the parties. Neither leader necessarily has the support at home for making the necessary compromises. So this is very risky.
It's very risky for President Obama because these talks are considered so likely to fail. But this is something that the president said was a top foreign policy priority of his and he's been doggedly pushing forward with it.
Yesterday, the administration's chief negotiator, former Senator George Mitchell, told reporters that he was determined to fight against the cynicism and the pessimism and create an atmosphere where the leaders can have confidence in the sincerity of each other's motives, just to create a climate where people can believe a peace agreement is even possible. And he thinks there is a window of opportunity to get it done.
SIEGEL: Now, one obstacle looms just weeks away. On September 26th, the partial moratorium on Israeli settlement building expires. What are White House officials saying about that?
LIASSON: Well, they say that their position on settlements is very clear. They want Netanyahu to continue the moratorium. It's not clear if he has the support in his own right wing governing coalition to do that. Settler groups are already threatening to bring down his government if he tries. And the Palestinians are saying they'll walk out of the talks if the building resumes.
And yesterday, George Mitchell was asked about this and he basically said, we're working on it. So there are no breakthroughs there yet at all.
SIEGEL: Mara, these talks are starting one day after the president declared an end to U.S. combat mission in Iraq. It's a week full of foreign policy for a president who's justifiably obsessed with getting the economy back on track, if possible, before the November elections. Why the focus on foreign policy now?
LIASSON: Well, this is something the president promised to do. You know, after President Bush tried a policy of benign neglect of the Middle East situation, President Obama said he was going to put a lot of personal capital into this.
On his very first day in office he called the leaders in the region. On his second day in office he appointed George Mitchell, who's been working for the past 18 months to get these direct talks off the ground. So this is a top priority of the president's. He believes that if this conflict can be resolved, it could have benefits for U.S. security by reducing the influence of Iran in the region.
This is a cornerstone of his vision. And, yes, it means it is not talking about the economy as much as he could, but there's really not that much new he has to say about the economy right now. And as his press secretary says, people do understand that the presidency is about doing more than one thing at one time.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.