Obama confronts Israeli, Palestinian leaders

NEW YORK (AP) - September 22, 2009

There had been hopes for weeks that there might be more to show from the first meeting of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas since Netanyahu took office in March - perhaps even a dramatic announcement by Obama of the resumption of the Mideast peace negotiations that broke off over a year ago.

That wasn't to be. Despite months of effort, the sides remain far apart on a staunch Palestinian precondition for talks: that Israel halt all construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Obama has publicly echoed that demand to Israeli leaders - though the Palestinians noted with displeasure that he used the word "restrain" on Tuesday rather than "halt" or "freeze."

The president hosted the two foes at his New York hotel during a marathon day of diplomacy on the sidelines of this week's United Nations General Assembly gathering. It was a high-stakes gambit that could prove to be a timely personal intervention into the decades-old bloody dispute or a flop that damages Obama's global credibility on a broader scale.

Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, said the president took the risk because he believes the moment is uniquely ripe for progress - and because he felt an in-person display of his rising impatience could help.

So, instead of announcing a new round of peace talks, Obama announced a newly intensified effort to bring them about.

He tasked Mitchell with continuing to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials while in New York this week, invited negotiators from both sides to come to Washington next week and asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to report to him in mid-October on the status. This tightly compressed timeframe, even if not a real deadline, was designed to inject urgency into the process and "concentrate the mind," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely describe the private meetings.

"Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations - it is time to move forward," Obama declared, displaying an unusual level of public frustration as he prepared to sit down with Netanyahu and Abbas for joint talks after meeting with each separately. "We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back."

Spanning over two hours all together, the talks found all leaders promising to work to resume peace negotiations but also often using language described as "blunt" and "direct." Both leaders kept stressing with Obama their own priorities and fears. Obama in return emphasized a need to take risks and give up some things for a bigger goal, said a senior administration official.

According to Mitchell, Obama told the leaders at one point: "The only reason to hold public office is to get things done."

Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas spoke publicly at the meeting site. In a moment deep in symbolism, however, they engaged in an unsmiling and seemingly reluctant handshake at the start of the sitdown, with dozens of cameras clicking to record the moment. Obama praised both Israelis and Palestinians for positive steps. But he made clear they haven't done nearly enough.

Palestinians, Obama said, must build on recent security improvements and "do more to stop incitement" - meaning that they must stop those who encourage or carry out attacks on Israel. But Abbas' Fatah government is severely hampered in doing so, as Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are led the government's Islamic militant Hamas rivals.

As for the Israelis, Obama praised their moves to increase Palestinians' freedom of movement and to discuss "important steps to restrain settlement activity." But Israeli officials "need to translate these discussions into real action on this and other issues," he said sharply. In the private talks, he also chided the Israelis for suggesting that new peace talks would not resume on the same terms as last year's round, in which the fate of Jerusalem was expected to be on the table. Netanyahu now says Jerusalem if off limits for discussion.

Israeli's intense concern about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program came up briefly, but was not a focus, the official said. An Abbas aide, Yasser Abed Raddo, said that in the trilateral meeting Abbas restated his demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze. Netanyahu, in turn, demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians argue that under previous understandings they are not required to do that.

Mitchell said that despite recent months' focus on the settlement showdown, the Obama administration does not see resolving it as necessary to move to "final status" negotiations. "We do not believe in preconditions, we do not impose them and we urge others not to impose them," he said.

That message was delivered more directly in private, the official said, with Obama warning Palestinians against making "the perfect the enemy of the good" on settlements.

But even Palestinian displeasure that Obama chose the word "restrain" to talk about settlements, instead of "freeze," showed just how difficult the terrain is for Mideast peace.

"I think it will be a problem, not only from the point of view of the Palestinians, but I believe it should be from the international community" because it deviates from previous frameworks, "including the need for settlement activity to stop, and stop completely," said Abbas' prime minister, Salaam Fayyad.

Still, said Obama: "Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward. ... It is absolutely critical that we get this issue resolved."

Obama's 12-hour day of international intervention began with an address to a climate change summit, convened by U.N.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to create momentum for crucial international climate talks in Copenhagen in December.

With over 100 world leaders in attendance, Obama urged all to step up their efforts to combat global warming by curbing heat-trapping emissions. He held out the United States as a serious partner, even though he has made little progress in getting a bill through Congress to set mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.

"The journey is hard. And we don't have much time left to make it," the president said.

Obama also met with Chinese President Hu Jintao at a fraught time in the Washington-Beijing relationship, saying he wants more cooperative ties with the Asian economic and political powerhouse. Despite a dispute over new tariffs Obama has imposed on Chinese tire imports, Hu agreed that the relationship must stay on "the right course."

Over lunch, America's first black president hosted two dozen sub-Saharan African leaders for discussions about boosting opportunities for young people in their poverty-stricken nations. In the evening, he was delivering a keynote speech to former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative and attending U.N. leaders dinner.

Obama's New York meetings were a precursor to another turn on center stage later this week, when he hosts the G-20 summit of leading industrial and developing nations in Pittsburgh.

--- Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Amy Teibel contributed to this report.

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