LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
President Obama is making a personal bid, today, to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York, where world leaders are gathered for the U.N. General Assembly. Just starting talks has been a serious challenge for this administration, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: The Obama administration's envoy on the Middle East George Mitchell has been trying to pave the way for a formal restart of peace talks. The trouble is, the Israelis have rejected the U.S. call for a Jewish settlement freeze, and Palestinians argue there's no point in starting negotiations as long as Israel continues to build in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So as the president flew to New York for the meetings, his spokesman Robert Gibbs was making sure to keep expectations low.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Spokesman, White House): We have no grand expectations out of one meeting, except to continue, as the President talked about from his very first day in office, continue the hard work, day-to-day diplomacy that has to be done to seek a lasting peace.
KELEMEN: The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says he's counting on the Obama administration to remain firm with Israel on the issue of Jewish settlements.
Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Chief Palestinian negotiator): The settlements the Israelis are building are taking place on the same land where we're supposed to have a Palestinian state. So it's either settlements or peace. The Israeli government has the choice of either settlements or peace. They have chosen, all the time, settlements and this must stop.
KELEMEN: The Israeli government has been suggesting a temporary moratorium on some construction, but it would not cover some 3,000 West Bank housing units already approved and the Israelis say there will be no freeze on construction in Jerusalem. An Israeli embassy spokesman, Jonathan Peled, says Jerusalem is not a topic for now.
Mr. JONATHAN PELED (Spokesman, Israeli embassy): Jerusalem is basically a separate issue. It's not part of this agreement and it's an issue which would be discussed directly between the Palestinians and Israel once we reach the final settlement negotiations.
KELEMEN: Peled says the Israelis are ready for talks and says there shouldn't be any preconditions. Palestinians complain that the Israelis are just trying to shift the blame on them, and say the Netanyahu government hasn't shown any interest in tackling all the so-called final status issues, including the future of Jerusalem.
In the meantime, Arab countries that have been asked to make some gestures to Israel are waiting to see how this dispute over settlements plays out. In these circumstances, Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller says today's meeting is the key to an empty room.
Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Woodrow Wilson Center): The administration's approach for the last six months has been to try to get the Israelis to agree to a partial settlement freeze and the Arabs to agree to a partial normalization. The problem is they haven't succeeded. And even if they could succeed, the real issue for me is what do these things have to do with the ultimate objective, which is how to get Israelis and Palestinians into a conflict ending agreement.
KELEMEN: A former Middle East negotiator for the State Department, Miller says the president might have to decide soon how committed he is to reaching an agreement and put some ideas on the table.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has been suggesting one option: making it clear to Israelis and Palestinians that if they can't reach a two-state solution in two years, the United Nations should just declare a Palestinian state and make it a U.N. member. The Israelis reject any talk of deadlines. The Palestinians say two years is too long.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.
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