United States President Barack Obama met Thursday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House, and said that both Israel and the Palestinians must work to get the peace process "back on track."
"I am confident that we can move this process forward," Obama said after meeting with Abbas. The president said that means both sides must meet the obligations that they have already committed to - an element of the peace effort that has proved elusive for years.
"We can't continue with the drift, with the increased fear and resentment on both sides, the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now," Obama told reporters with Abbas seated at his side. "We need to get this thing back on track."
Hoping to revive stalled peace efforts, Obama held White House talks with Abbas ten days after hosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains at odds with the U.S. over settlements and Palestinian statehood.
Obama made clear that he would continue to push Netanyahu, who has expressed his resistance to call for a total freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.
Asked about the Israeli position on the two-state solution, Obama said he is confident that, if Israel looks at its long-term interests, it will realize a two-state solution is in the interest of the Israelis and Palestinians alike. "I'm a strong believer in a two-state solution," he said.
"I think that we don't have a moment to lose," Obama said, "but I also don't make decisions based on just the conversation that we had last week because obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu has to work through these issues in his own government, in his own coalition, just as President Abbas has a whole host of issues that he has to deal with."
Obama said he would discuss his proposal for the Mideast peaceprocess in some fashion during his speech from Cairo next week, becausenot to do so would be "inappropriate." He said he also plans to deliver a broader message about improving the sense of understanding between Americans and Muslims around the world, in part by talking about the importance of Muslim Americans in American society.
The president commended Abbas for working toward a unity government, but remained insistent that the new government adhere to the principles laid out by the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers the U.S., Russia, United Nations and the European Union. He declined to specificy a time frame for a Palestinian state, saying he didn't want to set an "artificial time table," but added that he shares Abbas' feelings that "time is of the essence." His Mideast envoy George Mitchell is working to "jump start" the process, he said.
Abbas is working to repackage the 2002 Saudi Arabian plan that calls for Israel to give up land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War in exchange for normalized relations with the Arab world. Abbas gave Obama a document that would keep intact that requirement and also offer a way to monitor a required Israeli freeze on all settlement activity, a timetable for Israeli withdrawal and a realization of a two-state solution.
"The main purpose of presenting this document to President Obama is to help him in finding a mechanism to implement the Arab peace initiative," Abbas told the Associated Press.
Asked about his impression of the meeting with Obama, Abbas said: "It was a serious and open meeting and President Obama seems determined on what he has said to us and to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu about the necessity of implementing the road map, and we have agreed to continue our communications."
"I believe that if the Israelis would withdraw from all occupied Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese land, the Arab world will be ready to have normal relationships with the state of Israel," said Abbas.
When asked how the U.S. would intervene in the peace process, if Israel keeps declining to accept the two-state solution and to freeze the settlements, Obama answered: "If Israel keeps declining to accept the two-state solution and to freeze the settlements... Well, I think it's important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best."
Obama said he told Abbas the Palestinians must find a way to halt the incitement of anti-Israeli sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools, mosques and public arenas. "All those things are impediments to peace," Obama said.
More than 120 settlements dot the West Bank, and Palestinian officials say their growth makes it increasingly impossible to realize an independent state. More than 280,000 Israelis live in the settlements, in addition to more than 2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. An additional 180,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital.
Netanyahu's government on Thursday spurned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's blunt assertion that all settlement activity must stop, including the "natural growth" of existing enclaves that Netanyahu has vowed to continue.
"Normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue," said spokesman Mark Regev, noting Israel has already agreed not to build new settlements and to remove some unauthorized settler outposts. Regev said the fate of the settlements would be determined in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
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