Obama Urges Mideast Peace Talks To 'Press On'

In a speech at the United Nations Thursday, President Obama again urged Israel to extend its partial moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank. It is due to expire Sunday. The Palestinians say they will suspend peace talks, if construction in the settlements resumes.

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A test for Middle East peace talks comes this weekend. Israel's partial ban on building settlements in the West Bank expires on Sunday. Palestinians say Israel must extend that ban, or peace talks are done. And with that in mind, President Obama made a passionate appeal to world leaders. At the United Nations yesterday, he asked for help to keep the peace process moving.

Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Obama told world leaders that they have a choice. They can come back next year and make the same old speeches, or they can put their weight behind the peace talks his administration finally got off the ground.

President BARACK OBAMA: This time, we should draw upon the teachings of tolerance that lie at the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem's soil as sacred. This time, we should reach for what's best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.

KELEMEN: But to get there, he says, Arab states need to do more to help the Palestinian Authority president and stop trying to, quote, "tear Israel down."

Pres. OBAMA: Israel is a sovereign state, and the historic homeland of the Jewish people. It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel's legitimacy will only be met by the unshakable opposition of the United States.

KELEMEN: President Obama also had a message to Israelis who were not in the room because of the Jewish holiday Sukkot.

Pres. OBAMA: Israel's settlement moratorium has made a difference on the ground, and improved the atmosphere for talks. Our position on this issue is well known. We believe that the moratorium should be extended. We also believe that talks should press on until completed.

KELEMEN: An Israeli source says there are lots of compromises being floated from all sides, though none appear to be too serious yet. With settlers planning to resume building on Sunday and Palestinians threatening to walk out of talks if that happens, the negotiators are in a rush. A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said there's literally no stone unturned, and negotiations are likely to go right down to the deadline. A former Palestinian negotiator said if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas compromises on the issue, he will look weak in the eyes of Palestinians. Speaking outside the U.N. yesterday, Diana Buttu also said she's disappointed that President Obama is backpedaling on the settlement issue.

Ms. DIANA BUTTU (Former Legal Advisor, PLO): I expected much, much more from President Obama. I really expected that he was going to act and be very decisive on the issue - at the very least, of the settlements. Because in my mind, how can anybody prove to us that the peace process is going to work and that settlements will eventually be evacuated if they can't even stop them from being constructed in the first place now?

KELEMEN: Israeli officials say that extending the moratorium would be risky politically, and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have to get something in return from Abbas. Buttu, who once advised the Palestinian Authority president, argues that there should be no quid pro quo, because building in the occupied West bank, she says, is illegal.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.

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