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Obama Urges Abbas, Netanyahu to Advance Talks

BY Dave Gustafson   September 22, 2009 at 2:04 PM EST

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas shake hands; Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

“Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations,” the president said at the start of a joint meeting in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “It is time to move forward.”

Tuesday’s event marked this first meeting between the Israeli and Palestinians leaders since Netanyahu took office in March and the first three-way meeting between the leaders.

Eager to show momentum, Mr. Obama outlined specific expectations for both sides and a timeline of steps for the coming weeks.

“Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way to move forward,” Mr. Obama said, calling for a halt to the “endless cycle of conflict and suffering.”

Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas spoke to the media as the meeting began, news agencies reported. But after Mr. Obama’s brief remarks, he shook each of their hands. The two foes then shook hands as well, with dozens of cameras clicking to record the moment.

The trilateral discussion began about an hour late after Mr. Obama met individually with both men.

“Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon,” President Obama told reporters.

President Obama said that since his administration took office there has been progress toward laying a foundation for the resumption of peace talks “but we still have much further to go.”

Mr. Obama said his top Mideast negotiator, George Mitchell, would meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators again next week. He also said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would report back to him in October on the status of talks.

The Israeli-Palestinian sit-down wasn’t announced until Saturday and comes with the two sides still far apart on what it would take to resume peace talks that broke off last year. Each side has blamed the other for blocking talks.

Mitchell failed last week to bridge the gap between the two sides on the issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Mr. Obama has asked Israel to freeze all settlement construction, a condition for Abbas to resume negotiations. But Israel has only committed to a partial halt.

Many Arab commentators wanted to see if President Obama will force Israel to end settlement activity as his administration has demanded. Abdul Bari Atwan, chief editor of al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper in London, told Al Jazeera that Abbas’s participation in the meetingwas concerning.

“The fact that he is taking part at all, without any of his demands being met, has given the impression to all that he has caved in much too easily,” he said.

In the Jerusalem Post, Amir Mizroch dryly noted that the “only thing Obama did manage to get Bibi and Abbas to say yes to is a photo-op at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in NY. Mazel tov,” adding that the U.S. president should get used to hearing no from world leaders as long as the U.S. economy remains weakened.

The White House tempered expectations for the meeting, saying it will begin a long process of negotiations.

“The U.S. wants to and the U.S. needs to negotiate in public,” said Jon Alterman, a senior fellow in Middle East policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department official in President George W. Bush’s first term. “There’s a perceived need for the U.S. to visibly be involved in making progress on Arab-Israeli issues.”