Obama urges Israelis, Palestinians to do more
In three-way talks bringing together PM Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Abbas, US president calls for relaunch of formal peace negotiations, says his top Mideast negotiator will meet with both sides again next week. Netanyahu: We reached a general agreement to resume talks as soon as possible
NEW YORK - US President Barack Obama, making his most direct foray into Middle East diplomacy, on Tuesday called Israelis and Palestinians to act with a sense of urgency to get formal peace negotiations back on track.
"Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon," Obama told reporters as he sat down for a three-way meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu said after the meeting that the sides had agreed that peace talks should be relaunched as soon as possible.
"There was general agreement, including on the part of the Palestinians, that the peace process has to be resumed as soon as possible with no preconditions," the prime minister told reporters in New York.
During the meeting where no major breakthroughs had been expected, Obama coaxed the two into a handshake and stood back as they gripped hands, both smiling slightly. Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas spoke during a brief appearance before reporters as the meeting got under way.
"Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward," Obama said.
He said that since his administration took office in January there has been progress toward laying a foundation for the resumption of peace talks "but we still have much further to go."
Obama got specific with his expectations for both sides and outlined a timeline of steps for the coming weeks, eager to show momentum.
He said his top Mideast negotiator, George Mitchell, would meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators again next week. He also said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would report back to him in October on the status of talks.
"My message to these two leaders is clear," Obama said. "Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward." Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon."
Obama addresses reporters after three-way summit (Photo: Reuters)
Obama said both sides should take positive steps and be ready for compromise.
"Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security but they need to do more to stop incitement and to move forward with negotiations," he said.
"Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians and have discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity but they need to translate these discussions into reality on this and other issues," he said.
Obama said on Tuesday he had told both sides it was time to put an end to the "endless cycle of conflict and suffering."
"We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then pulling back," he said.
Following the summit, Netanyahu and Obama held a 10-minute face-to-face meeting.
The three-way session came after Obama met individually with both men on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. Netanyahu told Obama during their meeting that Israel seeks to cooperate with the United States in order to promote the peace process.
'An ice-breaking meeting'
Prime Minister Netanyahu told reporters after the summit, "We had two good meetings, even very good, I would say – one with President Obama and his team and later with the Palestinian team. Although the importance of the meeting is in its existence, it was an ice-breaking meeting between people who have not worked with each other for months. It provides a possibility to change things in the future."
The press briefing was attended by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Lieberman said that "although the Palestinian side is saying it has no preconditions, it has all kinds of demands for moves in the West Bank. I think the first trust-building move we expect is that the same Palestinian Authority which filed a lawsuit against us for war crimes at the Hague court will pull it. That's what I told the Palestinians during the three-way meeting, adding that the PA had pressured Israel to go all the way during Operation Cast Lead."
Barak added, "We made it clear during the meetings that we must make progress towards peace, but the issues of the Goldstone Report and Iran were also raised. The Americans praised the moves taken by Israel to improve the Palestinians' lives, as well as the actions to restrain the construction in Judea and Samaria. I think this is a unique opportunity for making progress in the peace process. There is an opportunity here we must take advantage of."
Netanyahu added that the negotiation teams would meet next week in Washington with American envoy George Mitchell, where the Palestinians may raise the Jerusalem issue again and other controversial issues.
"They can raise the Jerusalem issue and we'll present our stance," he said. "In the joint meeting with Abu Mazen (Abbas) I told him that 'there is no use in insisting on these matters. Let's move forward.'"
Lieberman told reporters that Abbas had approached him and shaken his hand, saying "hello to the foreign minister." He added, "I told him he must not be so formal, we are neighbors after all."
Netanyahu ended the briefing by referring to a question on Abbas' ability to "deliver the goods."
"We must notice that he has managed, quiet impressively, to establish his status recently," the prime minister said. "We know what we expect from the person who has to lead the Palestinians to peace and know what is required of him. Can Abu Mazen deliver the goods or not? I hope he can.
"I hope he will support peace, face Hamas and insist on Israel's right to exist as the Jewish nation state. His abilities will be examined over time. I have said recently that the Palestinian people's leadership must decide whether it is acting like (former PA Chairman Yasser) Arafat or like (late Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat."
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report