Obama scolds Israeli, Palestinian leaders at meeting

REUTERS AND AP , NEW YORK AND JERUSALEM

Thu, Sep 24, 2009 - Page 7

An impatient US President Barack Obama scolded Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday for not doing more to unblock the peace process and urged them to relaunch negotiations soon.

“It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward,” Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who met for the first time since Netanyahu took office in March.

Abbas, in a statement, repeated Palestinian insistence that Israel halt settlement building in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem — which Netanyahu’s government has resisted.

Obama set Middle East peace as a top priority at the start of his presidency in January, in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, who was criticized internationally for neglecting the conflict.

The summit yielded no immediate signs of a breakthrough. It was Obama’s most direct intervention into a six-decade conflict that has long defied US diplomatic efforts.

But in a sign that pressure from Obama may yet produce progress, Netanyahu told reporters after the talks that there had been “general agreement that the peace process should resume as soon as possible with no preconditions.”

It was unclear how and when that might happen.

Netanyahu has resisted US pressure to freeze all Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, a key Palestinian demand.

As the summit got under way, Obama had to coax Netanyahu and Abbas into a handshake, both with strained smiles. At times sounding frustrated, Obama urged the sides to relaunch stalled peace negotiations without delay.

“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,” he said.

US Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell, briefing reporters later, said Obama tried to convey “his sense of urgency, his impatience, his view that there is here a unique opportunity at this moment in time that may pass if there is further delay.”

Hoping to push the process forward, Obama said Mitchell would meet Israeli and Palestinian negotiators again next week.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday described Netanyahu’s summit with the Palestinian and US leaders as a victory because it took place even though Israel had rebuffed the demands to freeze settlement in the West Bank.

“This government has shown that you don’t always need to get flustered, to surrender and give in,” Lieberman told Israel Radio.