Obama urges hard work for Mideast peace

With Mideast peace talks at a crisis point, President Obama on Monday urged a noncommittal Palestinian leader to make what he called “very hard” decisions to keep the U.S.-backed negotiations moving toward an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

“We’re going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re to move it forward,” Obama said at the start of an Oval Office meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “My hope is that we can continue to see progress in the coming days and weeks.”

A U.S.-imposed deadline for Israel and the Palestinians to agree to an outline for a peace deal is approaching at the end of April. Secretary of State John F. Kerry wants both sides to agree to a set of principles that would guide the final negotiations on long-standing issues such as the borders of a future Palestinian state and whether its capital would be in East Jerusalem.

The talks are at an apparent impasse over Israel’s insistence that a peace deal include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state.” Abbas railed against the demand — not an express part of past failed negotiations — ahead of his visit to Washington.

“Time is not on our side, especially given the very difficult situation that the Middle East is experiencing and the entire region is facing,” Abbas said Monday.

In a reference to the “recognition” sticking point, Abbas added: “Since 1988, we have recognized international legitimacy resolutions, and this was a very courageous step on the part of the Palestinian leadership. And in 1993, we recognized the state of Israel.”

Abbas met with Kerry before and after his session with Obama. The top U.S. diplomat is trying to hold both sides to their commitment to remain at the table. The Palestinians agreed to refrain from seeking further statehood privileges through the United Nations during the negotiations, and Israel agreed to release Palestinian prisoners, including some convicted of killing Israelis.

Both concessions were unpopular with political hard-
liners. The final and most politically sensitive prisoner release is due March 29.

As the deadline approaches, Kerry has repeatedly put off a trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank to nudge talks along, in an apparent attempt not to stir up domestic opposition to the deal in either place. He has instead met with negotiators and leaders in Washington or Europe.

Kerry also signaled recently that the “Jewish state” issue is a major roadblock. He angered some Israeli leaders when he said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he thinks it is “a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace.”

Formal recognition of a Jewish state is deeply unpopular among Palestinians. They fear that such a move could undermine the claims of Palestinians and their descendants who left homes in what is now Israel at the founding of the state more than 60 years ago. Palestinians also argue that codifying Israel’s Jewishness in a treaty could harm Israel’s Arab minority.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew loud applause two weeks ago when he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington that Palestinians have “no excuses” to put off recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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