WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
will be launching direct negotiations Thursday, just two days after a deadly terror attack
in the West Bank, which left four Israelis killed.
US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday progress was being made at talks he is hosting at the White House. "We are making progress," he told reporters after meeting with Palestinian President Abbas.
A spokesman for Abbas, Nabil Abu Redeineh, told reporters before the Palestinian leader went to the White House that negotiations with the Israelis will fail almost as soon as they begin unless Israel extends a moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The moratorium is to expire September 26.
Obama said during his meeting with Netanyahu, which lasted 90 minutes and described as "good," that Tuesday's killing was a "senseless slaughter" that would not stop the US from seeking peace in the Middle East.
"I want everybody to be very clear," Obama said. "The United States is going to be unwavering in its support of Israel's security. And we are going to push back against these kinds of terrorist attacks. And so the message should go out to Hamas
and everyone else who is taking credit for these heinous crimes that this is not going to stop us."
Netanyahu applauded Obama's condemnation, saying the killings were carried out by people who do not respect human life and who "trample human rights into the dust and butcher everything they oppose."
He praised the US president for his support and for expressing the sentiments of "decent people everywhere."
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Obama, Netanyahu said Israel would a seek a peace accord "centered around the need to have security arrangements that are able to roll back this kind of terror and other threats to Israel's security."
The prime minister telephoned Defense Minister Ehud Barak earlier
Wednesday and was briefed about the shooting attack. He said that the settlements were not a condition for the negotiations.
"We came here to find a real solution without any preconditions. There is no room to abandon the talks over an issue, which could be raised as part of the negotiations and solved as part of the permanent agreement."
Before leaving for his meeting with Obama at the White House, the prime minister said, "At this time, as the entire Israeli nation is united in its deep grief over the murder of four innocent people, I call on all elements to practice restraint and responsibility and honor the rule of law."
Palestinian President Abbas was due to arrive at the White House shortly thereafter, as were Jordan's
King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Earlier, Netanyahu met at his hotel with the Quartet's Middle East envoy Tony Blair.
Obama and Netanyahu at White House (Photo: Reuters)
During his meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night, the prime minister clarified that there was no change in the cabinet decision on the settlement construction freeze, which ends September 26.
Netanyahu told Clinton, "You cannot take the Judea and Samaria settlement issue, which belongs to the permanent agreement, and separate it from the other issues at the very beginning of the direct talks. Israel is not demanding that the Palestinian Authority take over the Gaza Strip as a condition for entering the peace talks, and is not presenting other excuses which may halt the negotiations. On the contrary."
Yesha Council Chairman Danny Dayan, who is also in Washington, told Ynet: "We are not fighting Netanyahu, we are only working for the settlement blocs. The resumption of construction on September 27 is a positive thing, and aspiring to a Palestinian state is a bad thing."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday condemned
the shooting attack as a "blatant attempt" to undermine upcoming Middle East peace talks."The secretary-general condemns the killing of four Israeli citizens in the West Bank on 31 August," Ban's spokesman said in a statement.
"This attack must be recognized for what it is - a cynical and blatant attempt to undermine the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations starting tomorrow," the statement added, extending the UN chief's condolences to the families of the victims and calling for swift justice for "the perpetrators of this crime."
Ban called upon both sides to show "leadership, courage, and responsibility to realize the aspirations of both peoples."
Yitzhak Benhorin, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report