Obama urges progress on Mideast

Aims to move beyond talks on settlements

President Obama voiced frustration with the pace of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. President Obama voiced frustration with the pace of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (Rick Gershon/Getty Images)
By Michael D. Shear and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post / September 23, 2009

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UNITED NATIONS - President Obama’s meetings yesterday with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority signaled his impatience with months of stalemate in the quest for Middle East peace, as well as his desire to move beyond talks about settlement construction and straight to negotiations on the final shape of the region.

In private, one-on-one discussions, Obama chided Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority for their failure to make progress in negotiations that could end decades of violence between their people, officials familiar with the talks said.

“Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon,’’ Obama said before the meetings with both men. “It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward.’’

The blunt message from the president suggests that his administration has grown weary of failed efforts to resolve disputes about settlement construction and other issues before moving to broader peace talks. And it represents a return to a peacemaking approach - pushing for a comprehensive solution - that bedeviled President George W. Bush and his predecessors.

Since taking office, Obama had sought to “set the context’’ for overall peace talks by first negotiating a freeze on Israeli settlements and security improvements by Palestinians.

To that end, George Mitchell, Obama’s Middle East envoy and a former senator, laid out a series in June of what he called “meaningful steps’’ that Israelis and Palestinians must take before resuming peace talks. He said at the time that “our focus right now is to create the context for the resumption and early conclusion of meaningful negotiations.’’

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also have criticized the settlement expansion in unusually tough terms, leading to tension in the generally close US-Israel relationship.

But US officials familiar with yesterday’s meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly said Obama has now made it clear he does not want to wait for resolution of those issues before resuming negotiations about creating two independent states.

“This phase really needs to come to an end,’’ said one senior White House official who is deeply involved in the Middle East discussions. “It’s important that we get on to the permanent status talks. You can’t spend all your time trying to create that context.’’

Mitchell insisted yesterday that US goals have not changed. He said the president has always sought a resumption of peace talks that could resolve the dispute permanently.

But Mitchell avoided repeating the language he used earlier this summer about the need for Israel to halt settlement activity and for Palestinians to take responsibility for security concerns. Instead, he said the president made clear that no single issue should be seen as a prerequisite for talks.

“We are not identifying any issue as being a precondition nor an impediment to negotiation,’’ Mitchell told reporters, adding later that “we do not believe in preconditions. We do not impose them and we urge others not to impose preconditions.’’

After hosting the meetings in a high-ceilinged, ornately decorated room of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Obama announced that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would return to Washington next week to hold further discussions with Mitchell and others aimed at starting final peace negotiations.

And the president said that Clinton would report back to him on the status of those discussions by mid-October.

“We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back,’’ Obama said. “It is absolutely critical that we get this issue resolved.’’