NEW YORK CITY — President Obama held what he called "frank and productive" meetings this afternoon with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas where, according to a senior White House official, the president “was pretty tough” on both leaders, conveying “a sense of his impatience and seriousness and his analysis that they need to get going.”
Stating that the United States is committed to a “just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East” that results in a two-state solution “in which both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people can live in peace and security and realize their aspirations for a better life for their children,” President Obama, speaking at a photo opportunity with both leaders, said “it is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward.”
The White House official, who spoke under condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the president conveyed that a Mideast peace process “can’t just be a perpetual kabuki” if president Obama is “going to continue to invest his political capital.”
The president said today that Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security but “need to do more to stop incitement and to move forward with negotiations.” As for the Israeli government, which took office in April, the president said Palestinians now have greater freedom of movement because of the dozens of roadblocks and inspection points that have been dismantled. But while Israelis have “discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity,” Mr. Obama said today that “they need to translate these discussions into real action on this and other issues.”
The senior White House official said that the Israelis “said they’re ready to go” with talks, “though in the run-up to today they were a little balky.”
President Obama conveyed to the Palestinians that while they may be disappointed with Israel’s offer of a limited freeze on settlements, the offer is “enough to get talks going,” the official said. The president also told Abbas that he and his government ”need to demonstrate to the Israeli public that they’re ready to be a willing and reliable partner” in the peace process.
“My message to these two leaders is clear,” the president said at the photo op at the Waldorf-Astoria just blocks from the United Nations. “Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward. We have to summon the will to break the deadlock that has trapped generations of Israelis and Palestinians in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering. We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back.”
Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, reading from notes he took in the meeting President Obama had with both Netanyahu and Abbas, later said that the president told them, "It’s difficult to disentangle ourselves from history but we must do so. The only reason to hold public office is to get things done. We all must take risks for peace. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is critical to Israel's security and it’s necessary for Palestinians to realize their aspirations."
There was some pushback from both Abbas and Netanyahu. Behind the scenes, Palestinians have been pushing for Israel to commit to explicit points to be resolved in any peace talks, the official said, such as specific borders, the future status of East Jerusalem, and the ability of Palestinians who fled their homes in Israel in 1948 to return. Israeli leaders are resisting any such specifics.
“The president told the Palestinians that he doesn’t think their situation is going to improve by delaying,” the official said. “They have a lot to gain by getting the process going.”
President Obama told the leaders that “success depends on all sides acting with a sense of urgency,” with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mitchell now responsible for continuing the efforts. Mitchell will meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators next week; Secretary Clinton will report to the president on the status of these negotiations in mid- October.
Both Abbas and Netanyahu “heard the president pretty clearly,” the official said. “This is only going to get more difficult as time goes on.”