Obama urges Israel to extend settlement freeze
US president tells White House press conference he sees 'enormous hurdles' ahead in Israel-PA peace talks, but claims, 'It's a risk worth taking because the alternative is status quo that is unsustainable.' Adds: Burning copies of Koran could lead to retaliation against US troops
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said on Friday he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it makes sense to extend a moratorium on settlement construction for as long as Middle East talks are constructive.
Speaking at a White House news conference, the US president said, "And it turns out, to Netanyahu's credit and to the Israeli government's credit, the settlement moratorium has actually been significant. It has significantly reduced settlement construction in the region. And that's why now the Palestinians say: You know what; even though we weren't that keen on it at first or we thought it was just window dressing, it turns out that this is important to us.
"What I've said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that, given so far the talks are moving forward in a constructive way, it makes sense to extend that moratorium so long as the talks are moving in a constructive way, because ultimately the way to solve these problems is for the two sides to agree what's going to be Israel, what's going to be the state of Palestine; and if you can get that agreement, then you can start constructing anything that the people of Israel see fit, in undisputed areas," Obama stated.
"Now, I think the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu are very difficult. His coalition - I think there are a number of members of his coalition who've said, we don't want to continue this. And so I've -- you know, one of the things that I've said to President Abbas is you've got to show the Israeli public that you are serious and constructive in these talks so that the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu, if he were to extend the settlement moratorium, would be a little bit easier."
Obama said he saw "enormous hurdles" ahead in Middle East peace negotiations, but said it was a risk worth taking and the United States would remain engaged even if talks break down.
"There are enormous hurdles between now and our endpoint," he said.
"And there are going to be a whole bunch of folks in the region who want to undermine these negotiations. We saw it when Hamas carried out these horrific attacks against civilians and explicitly said, 'We're going to try to do this to undermine peace talks.' There are going to be rejectionists who suggest that it can't happen, and there are also going to be cynics who just believe that the mistrust between the sides is too deep."
According to the American leader, the talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who are due to meet again in Egypt on Sept. 14-15, represented a chance to realize the goal of an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace with a secure Israel.
"The two parties need each other. That doesn't mean it's going to work. Ultimately it's going to be up to them," Obama said.
"I remain hopeful but this is going to be tough," Obama said. "It's a risk worth taking because the alternative is a status quo that is unsustainable. And so if these talks break down, we're going to keep on trying."
'Pray on it'
The US president said a successful peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians could "change the strategic landscape in the Middle East" and help US efforts to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.
"This is something in our interests. We're not just doing this to feel good. We're doing it because it will help secure America as well."
Obama continued to say that he hopes a Florida pastor refrains from burning copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and warned it could cause "profound damage" to US interests.
"The idea that we would burn the sacred text of someone else's religion is contrary to what this country stands for," said the president, warning it could lead to retaliation against US troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters." he said. "It is in the age of the Internet something that can cause us profound damage around the world, so we've got to take it seriously."
The Florida pastor, Terry Jones, said on Friday he would not burn the Koran but could change his mind if a proposed meeting fails to take place on Saturday in New York with Muslim leaders planning to build an Islamic center and mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Right now we have plans not to do it (burn the Koran),"Jones told ABC's "Good Morning America" program. Jones has said a Florida imam had promised him a meeting with New York imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in exchange for canceling the Koran-burning.
Abdul Rauf is at the center of the controversy over the New York mosque.
Obama said the burning would be a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"We've got an obligation to send a very clear message that this kind of behavior or threats of action put our young men and women in harm's way," he said.
"My hope is that this individual (Jones) prays on it and refrains from doing it."
Obama added that capturing or killing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remains a high US priority.
AP, Reuters contributed to the report
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