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U.S. Pushes Palestinians On Direct Talks With Israelis

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U.S. Pushes Palestinians On Direct Talks With Israelis

Middle East

U.S. Pushes Palestinians On Direct Talks With Israelis

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A new poll released by the Brookings Institution today shows opinion of President Obama in the Arab world has dropped significantly over the past year. A key factor is the lack of progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The survey was issued as the Obama administration steps up efforts to revive direct talks between the two sides.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Like other presidents before him, when Mr. Obama took office, he made Mideast peace a priority of his administration. He appointed George Mitchell as his special envoy to the region. Four months ago, Mitchell began to mediate indirect or so-called proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But those don't appear to have gone anywhere. Now there's a push for direct talks. Israel says that's what it wants, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has yet to agree.

Michele Dunne is a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ms. MICHELE DUNNE (Middle East Expert, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): The pressure is on the Palestinians to go into direct talks. And I would say the pressure is probably pretty intense right now because I think the Obama administration wants to show that there's some sort of progress.

NORTHAM: President Abbas is resisting direct talks until there is a clearer sense of where Israel stands on issues such as the borders of a future Palestinian state. Media reports quoting Palestinian officials said Mr. Obama sent a letter to President Abbas warning that if he refused to meet directly with Israel, U.S.-Palestinian relations could suffer.

But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said there was no threat. The administration just sees this is the best time to move toward face-to-face negotiations.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): We have made a strong argument to them that you gain leverage inside a direct negotiation, not by setting -trying to set conditions prior to the start of that negotiation.

NORTHAM: The Carnegie's Michele Dunne says President Obama has leverage over President Abbas because the Palestinian Authority relies on U.S. and international aid.

Ms. DUNNE: If he says this is the way you have to go, you've got to go into direct talks with Netanyahu or else I really can't do much for you, then they don't have a lot of other good options.

NORTHAM: Philip Wilcox, the president for the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says Abbas may run a political risk by agreeing to direct talks. But there could also be a benefit to such a meeting.

Mr. PHILIP WILCOX (President, Foundation for Middle East Peace): The advantage to him would be the opportunity to put Netanyahu on the spot to determine if he is serious about peacemaking or not.

NORTHAM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earned a reputation for obstructing Clinton administration efforts to broker a peace deal in the 1990s. Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, says Israel's challenges are different now. And Netanyahu may have learned from his earlier role in peace negotiations. Kurtzer says the new U.S. push for direct talks may have stemmed from last month's meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Mr. DANIEL KURTZER (Former American Ambassador to Israel and Egypt): Clearly Netanyahu said something that was convincing to the president that there was reason to invest time and effort in this process.

NORTHAM: Philip Wilcox says the drive to get direct talks under way could be more of a political calculation on President Obama's part. Recent tensions that emerged between the U.S. and Israel over Jewish settlements in occupied territory were beginning to become a political issue for the administration, says Wilcox.

Mr. WILCOX: I think the Obama administration, like all American administrations, is concerned about the November elections and the potential loss of campaign contributions or votes from the so-called Jewish right.

NORTHAM: While Palestinians have yet to agree to direct talks, Netanyahu has said the negotiations could begin in mid-August.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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