By Michael D. Shear and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 22 -- President Obama's meetings Tuesday 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 Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas 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 U.S. 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 former 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, former Sen. George Mitchell, Obama's Middle East envoy, in June laid out a series 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 U.S.-Israel relationship.
But U.S. officials familiar with Tuesday's meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. 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 Tuesday that U.S. goals have not changed. He said the president has always sought to resume peace talks and 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 an ornately decorated room with high ceilings at 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."
But comments from Netanyahu and Abbas suggested that little had changed since Mitchell returned empty-handed from several days of negotiations in Israel last week.
"In today's meetings we confirmed our positions and commitment to the road map and its implementation. We also demanded that the Israeli side fulfill its commitments on settlements, including on natural growth," Abbas said in a statement after the talks.
Abbas has in the past refused to return to peace talks unless Israel freezes settlement growth in Palestinian territories. Netanyahu, who heads a right-leaning government, has attempted a balancing act, authorizing new settlement expansion planning while appearing open to the idea of a freeze of about nine months.
In news media interviews after the meetings, Netanyahu hailed the shift in U.S. policy as a victory for the Israeli view that peace talks should not be dependent on a freeze of Israeli settlement construction.
"There is a way, I think, to relaunch the peace process and not get bogged down with this question, because we've just wasted six months on this issue," he told ABC's Charlie Gibson. "We could waste another six months. I think that's not good. I want to move on to peace."
U.S. officials had initially hoped to use the first meeting of the three leaders to announce a breakthrough. But in recent days, White House and State Department officials had played down expectations for any significant movement as it became clear that Mitchell had failed to secure an agreement in Israel.
Critical to reaching any peace deal are three "final status" issues: the status of Jerusalem and its mix of religious holy sites, the possible return of Palestinian refugees to lands they left behind in Israel decades ago, and the final border between the two states, which would include deciding which settlements Israel would retain in the West Bank.
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Jerusalem contributed to this report.