Middle East Talks Fail to Produce Hope for New Negotiations

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak during a trilateral meeting with in New York September 22, 2009. 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.
(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Middle East Talks Fail to Produce Hope for New Negotiations

Barack Obama's call for halt to Israeli settlements on West Bank rebuffed by Binyamin Netanyahu

Barack Obama failed to achieve a hoped-for breakthrough aimed at a resumption of Middle East negotiations today at a three-way meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York.

The president had only one success to show for months of effort - a handshake between the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, meeting for the first time since the Israeli leader was elected in February.

The two appeared reluctant to shake hands, smiling hesitantly and having to be coaxed by Obama.

A final burst of White House activity over the preceding 24 hours failed to close the diplomatic gap between Abbas and Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister rebuffed a US call for a total freeze on Jewish settlement on the West Bank. Abbas refused to resume negotiations without such a freeze.

Both blamed the other for the failure of the US peace initiative.

US frustration showed when Obama told reporters: "Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon. It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward."

The US negotiator, George Mitchell, who spent a fruitless week in the Middle East last week shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian sides, is to return next week to the region for further talks.

The failure to have anything significant to announce today was a major setback for Obama, who hoped for a diplomatic triumph after weeks on the defensive on domestic policy. However, it represents a success - at least in the short term - for Netanyahu, who had been resisting US efforts for a settlement freeze.

It was also a setback for Abbas, who had been reluctant even to attend the tripartite talks without a settlement freeze. By attending, he opens himself to attack from opponents such as Hamas, who had already criticised him for taking part in a photo opportunity without receiving anything in return.

Although Obama stressed today that he was in for the long haul, it was an inauspicious start failing to secure even a confidence-building deal that would have opened the way for the resumption of negotiations.

Obama, speaking at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he has set up temporary headquarters, 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".

He called on the antagonists to show "the flexibility, common sense and compromise which is necessary to achieve our goals".

As part of the confidence-building deal, Obama had wrung concessions from Arab states in the Gulf and northern Africa, primarily allowing Israeli flights over their territory, allowing entry to people with Israeli stamps on their passports and the opening of trade office. But the US was frustrated that more Arab states had not signed up and that the concessions were relatively small.

Reflecting this, Obama said: "It remains important for the Arab states to take steps to promote peace in the region."

Obama first met separately with Netanayahu, who was late, held up by tough security that had blocked traffic, and then with Abbas, before bring them together for the handshake.

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