Obama and Netanyahu in New York
Photo: AFP
Mitchell not focusing on settlements
Photo: AFP
Obama wants answers by mid October
US president gives Israelis, Palestinians three weeks to respond on issues preventing resumption of peace negotiations. Special envoy Mitchell suggests Israeli settlement freeze not essential for peace talks with Palestinians to resume

NEW YORK - US President Barack Obama has given Israel and the Palestinians only three weeks to provide answers which would enable the relaunch of peace negotiations. Israeli officials estimated that the discussion on the settlement construction freeze issue would eventually be resumed.


The Israeli delegation to the 64th United Nations General Assembly in New York got the impression that President Obama has had enough of talks. The delegation members believe the US president is demanding answers which both sides cannot provide, whether on the settlement construction issue or on the Palestinian willingness to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation state, as well as other controversial issues.


"Obama has put his foot on the gas pedal and wants to see results, fast," an Israeli official said Tuesday night.


Meanwhile, Obama's special envoy George Mitchell suggested on Tuesday that an Israeli settlement freeze was not essential for peace talks with Palestinians to resume.


Speaking to reporters after US President Barack Obama met Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mitchell said the United States had never presented "preconditions" and did not want the parties to do so either.


The American envoy added that he would meet this coming Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's two representatives, Yitzhak Molcho and Mike Herzog, and perhaps also with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He will also meet with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.


Obama has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to report to him on the progress made in the talks by mid October.


The White House had hoped to orchestrate a series of steps by Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states that would have allowed Obama to announce this week the relaunch of peace talks, which have been on hold since December.


Among these steps was a US request that Israel live up to its commitment under a 2003 US-backed peace plan to halt all building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.


The United States also wanted the Palestinians to do more to prevent violence against Israelis and Arab nations to take steps toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state.

Three-way meeting in New York (Photo: AP) 


Asked if it was possible for talks to resume without a settlement freeze, Mitchell told reporters: "We are not identifying any issue as being a precondition or an impediment to negotiation.


"Neither the president nor the Secretary (of State Hillary Clinton) nor I have ever said of any one issue ... that it is a precondition to negotiations," he added.


Mitchell said the suggestions the United States had put forward would allow talks to resume under the best possible conditions with the best chance of success.


"But we do not believe in preconditions. We do not impose them and we urge others not to impose preconditions," he said.


Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, have argued that Israel must freeze settlement building before peace talks can resume.


Although each side, the Israeli and the Palestinians claim they are better understood by the American president, he demanded action from both sides and criticized both.


Defense Minister Barak, who took part in the meetings with Obama and later with Abbas, believes there is an opportunity which must be taken before it fades away. "This is the time for difficult decisions on both sides," he said, adding that he is in favor of trust-building gestures in order to resume the process.


Netanyahu believes the Palestinians and the Arab world must present the gestures they are willing to make, following the series of moves made by Israel over the past five months. He is ready, however, for negotiations without preconditions as soon as possible.


Yitzhak Benhorin in Washington contributed to this report


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