VIDEO / Obama's Rosh Hashanah message: Seize year of opportunity for Middle East peace
U.S. president offers hope but dampens expectations as peace talks crisis looms over impending end to settlement freeze.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday night issued his annual Rosh Hashanah greeting, urging Israelis and Palestinians to seize the opportunity for peace as Jews across the world prepare to mark the new year.
Obama's message comes as Israeli and Palestinian leaders gird for a second round of Middle East peace talks, which kicked off last week in Washington, with the U.S. president staking much political capital on seeking an end to the decades-old conflict.
Unlike Obama, previous presidents have waited until their second term of office to tackle this knottiest of diplomatic challenges.
"At a time when Israelis and Palestinians have returned to direct dialogue, it is up to us to encourage and support those who are willing to move beyond their differences and work towards security and peace in the Holy Land," Obama said.
But while offering hope, he also sought to dampen expectations.
"Progress will not come easy, it will not come quick. But today we had an opportunity to move forward, toward the goal we share—two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," he said.
Obama's backing is vital if the early meetings in Washington, hailed by observers as a success, are to retain their initial momentum.
Already on Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on America to step in to salvage the discussions as a scheduled end to Israel's self-imposed freeze on settlement building in the West Bank looms.
Israel declared the 10-month freeze, which covers all territory beyond the Green Line, excluding East Jerusalem, last year – but has so far resisted international calls for its renewal when it expires on September 26.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, faces heavy pressure from within his right-wing coalition to let construction restart. If that happens, Abbas could make good his threat to abandon talks altogether.
Following Obama's message, however, the U.S. State Department said that American diplomats were already taking steps to forge a compromise and prevent a collapse. A State Department spokesman hinted that an extra meeting between the leaders, scheduled for September 15 in Jerusalem - a day after they meet in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh - was meant specifically to address the dispute on settlements.
“We are mindful of statements, we're mindful of the calendar”, P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington. “That's why we felt it was important to meet next week at a high level. We understand that the leaders themselves will have to decide how this process unfolds."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to attend both meetings and Crowley promised continued American involvement in what he hoped would be a series of summits over the coming months.
"We're going into this process of direct negotiations not with the intent of having one or two sessions and leaving it there. This is going to be an intensive process that carries over weeks and months," he said.