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Obama: Seize the chance for peace

President Obama and Middle with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, President Obama, President HosniMubarak of Egypt (behind Obama), President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and King Abdullah of Jordan enter the East Room of the White House. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
President Obama and Middle with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, President Obama, President HosniMubarak of Egypt (behind Obama), President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and King Abdullah of Jordan enter the East Room of the White House. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) (Marvin Joseph)

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010

On the eve of the first direct Middle East peace negotiations since he took office, President Obama urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders Wednesday to seize "this moment of opportunity" and to end their decades-long conflict, pledging to throw his administration's "full weight" behind their effort to do so.

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Speaking in the Rose Garden after a day of preparatory meetings, Obama sternly addressed both parties and the region's Arab leaders, whom he scolded for endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state in principle while often doing little to help bring one about.

But he said that, ultimately, only Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas could make the compromises necessary to secure peace between their peoples.

"The hard work is only beginning," Obama said after the meeting. "Neither success nor failure is inevitable. But this much we know: If we do not make the attempt, then failure is guaranteed."

Obama's inauguration of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations comes after more than a year of diplomacy to bring the two sides together. The last direct talks broke off in December 2008 amid an intensive Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip to stop Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israeli towns.

The events Wednesday, which culminated in a White House dinner for Netanyahu, Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, marked at least a temporary success for the Obama administration, which has at times appeared confused over how to further peace-making in the region.

The president's Rose Garden remarks followed meetings with the four leaders who will be involved, either directly or as mediators, in negotiations that are scheduled to begin Thursday and that are supposed to conclude in a year with the conflict's most difficult issues resolved.

Those issues include the status of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital; the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside what is now Israel; and the final borders of a Palestinian state.

But a deeply divided Palestinian national movement, a right-leaning Israeli public, and the energetic extremes on both sides who oppose compromise of any kind are already complicating efforts to forge an agreement that has eluded Israelis, Palestinians and their U.S. mediators for years.

Perhaps the most immediate threat to the negotiations is the impending expiration of Israel's 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction.

The building freeze, opposed by Netanyahu's hawkish coalition partners, is set to expire Sept. 26. Abbas has warned that he might walk away from the talks if Netanyahu does not extend the moratorium, which U.S. officials also want to see remain in place.

"The central piece of worry focused on the moratorium," Soliman Awaad, Egypt's ambassador to Washington, told reporters after Mubarak's meeting with Obama.


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