WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama met with lead Israeli and Palestinian negotiators Tuesday, a day after they restarted long-stalled peace negotiations in Washington, a White House official said.
The meeting at the White House came after Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held their first peace talks in nearly three years on Monday in a US-brokered effort that Secretary of State John Kerry hopes will end their conflict despite deep divisions.
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A second meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and US envoy Martin Indyk is underway in Washington. US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to join the parties at around 5 pm and will give a statement to the press at 6 pm Israel time.
While Minister Tzipi Livni who is leading the negotiations on Israel's behalf tried to convey optimism, Israeli officials poured cold water over attempts to resume peace talks. "In the next nine months, we will have allayed pressure from the US and Europe, but these talks won't amount to anything," a senior state official said. "Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) only wants free gifts from Israel with giving anything in return."
Members of the political and defense establishment consider the negotiations an important move for Israel but officials are pessimistic. "If Secretary Kerry had not taken this on as a personal project we would not have dealt with this issue at this stage," one official said. "Even President Obama is taking a few steps back; Kerry is the one that's pushing on ahead."
State officials noted that strategically speaking the government's main priority is the Iranian issue and expressed concern over prospective bilateral talks between Washington and Tehran. "We have to keep up the pressure on Iran until Khamenei breaks," one official said.
Meanwhile, Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah slammed the renewed negotiations saying they position the Palestinian issue as another Middle Eastern tradable commodity. "I believe the Palestinian leadership is aware of this and I hope they don’t fall for this trap especially when the Arab world is on the verge of signing a new 'Sykes–Picot' deal who is more dangerous than the original."
Shallah, in Beirut for International Jerusalem Day, warned that "enemies" are trying "to tear apart what is already torn and replace the conflict with Zionism with a tribal dispute."
He noted that the Arab initiative is a new Balfour Declaration and even more dangerous than the original.
"We must realize that the state of the Arab nation today is at its most dangerous, if not the worst, in its history," Shalah said, further noting that the Palestinian issue is the mother of all problems of the Arab and Moslem nations.
Attila Somfalvi and Elior Levy contributed to this report
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