The Cable

Obama calls for direct talks before September

Amid all the efforts Tuesday to project a warm and friendly relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the two leaders did manage to announce some real news; Obama said he wants to see direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the next few weeks. While all sides have talked about ...

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Getty Images

Amid all the efforts Tuesday to project a warm and friendly relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the two leaders did manage to announce some real news; Obama said he wants to see direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the next few weeks.

While all sides have talked about the need to move from the proximity talks now being led by Special Envoy George Mitchell to direct talks between the two sides, Israel has been accusing the Palestinians of avoiding those talks by setting preconditions that would prejudge the talks’ outcome. The Palestinians want to ensure that the talks would cover all the final-status issues on the table, something the Netanyahu government has resisted.

Today, during a short press availability in the Oval Office after his meeting with Netanyahu, Obama for the first time said that he wanted the direct talks to start before a temporary settlement freeze by the Israelis ends in September.

"My hope is, is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment and success and not every action, by one party or the other, is taken as a reason for not engaging in talks, so there ends up being more room created by more trust," Obama said. "And so, you know, I want to just make sure that we sustain that over over the next several weeks."

There have been five meetings related to the proximity talks thus far. The rough understanding was that they would last for four months or so, but no deadline had yet been announced. Obama’s statement could put pressure on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to move to the direct talks faster. Obama said both sides should initiate confidence-building measures, and he also spoke about what he wants each government to do on that front.

"I think it’s very important that the Palestinians not look for excuses for incitement, that they are not engaging in provocative language; that at the international level, they are maintaining a constructive tone as opposed to looking for opportunities to embarrass Israel," Obama said. He added that Israel should allow the Palestinians more autonomy in the West Bank and further ease restrictions on the flow of goods to Gaza.

With the September deadline for the expiration of his 10-month settlement freeze looming, Netanyahu is clearly in support of finishing up the proximity-talks process. "I think it’s high time to begin direct talks," he said

In an interview, Palestine Liberation Organization representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable that the Palestinians will not move to direct talks until they receive concrete assurances from Netanyahu that all final-status issues are on the table, including borders.

He also warned the Israeli side against linking its settlement policy to the resumption of face-to-face negotiations.

"Everybody’s trying to link the moratorium to the four-month period of the proximity talks. I hope that is not an attempt to pressure the Palestinians that if they don’t move to the direct talks, there will be a resumption of settlement construction in the West Bank," he said.

Palestinian leaders do not believe Netanyahu’s claims that he wants to do what’s necessary to forge a comprehensive peace. "He has not shown that he is willing to engage genuinely with the Palestinians on all of these issues," Areikat said.

The position of key regional players such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, remains unclear, but Obama called on Arab states to play a more supportive role in the peace process. "They can’t succeed unless you have the surrounding states having a greater investment in the process than we’ve seen so far," he said of the negotiations.

Obama was clear to reaffirm U.S. support for Israel’s right to have an undeclared nuclear weapons program, despite the critical statement that came out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May.

"We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against it that Israel has unique security requirements," Obama said, "and the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests."

Obama sought to dispel the notion — widely held in Washington — that his administration does not see Netanyahu as committed to the peace process. "I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace," he said.

The two leaders’ comments after the 22-minute meeting were meant to repair the damage done by the last Obama-Netanyahu meeting, when no pictures or statements were released. But the press availability in the Oval Office was tightly controlled, with only pool reporters allowed inside and only one question permitted from each country’s press corps.

Obama challenged a reporter who asked him if he made a mistake by giving Netanyahu the "cold shoulder" at their last meeting.

"Let me, first of all, say that the premise to your question was wrong, and I entirely disagree with it. If you look at every public statement that I’ve made over the last year and a half, it has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel; that our commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering," Obama said, not mentioning the private statements.

After the presser, Obama and Netanyahu went into the Cabinet Room for a working lunch. Netanyahu is staying at Blair House, right across the street from the White House, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to visit him this afternoon and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will meet him Wednesday morning

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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