REUTERS - U.S. President Barack Obama plunged into Middle East diplomacy on Tuesday, urging Israel and the Palestinians to relaunch formal talks while doing more to stop the cycle of violence.
“Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon,” Obama told reporters as he sat down for a three-way meeting in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
During the meeting where no major breakthroughs had been expected, Obama coaxed the two into a handshake and stood back as they gripped hands, both smiling slightly.
The meeting came a day before Obama’s debut before the U.N. General Assembly, but officials had downplayed chances of a major diplomatic shift.
Obama told reporters his Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell would meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators again next week. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would report in October on the status of talks.
Obama asked Israel to stop expanding settlements and urged all sides to take steps to help the peace process.
“Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security but they need to do more to stop incitement and to move forward with negotiations,” he said.
“Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians and have discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity but they need to translate these discussions into reality on this and other issues.”
No breakthrough today
The New York meeting was the first between Netanyahu and Abbas since the Israeli became prime minister in March. But with both leaders entrenched in their positions, the simple three-way handshake fell far short of the diplomatic coup White House aides had once hoped for.
All parties sought to lower expectations in advance.
“We have no grand expectations out of one meeting except to continue ... the hard work, day-to-day diplomacy that has to be done to seek a lasting peace,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Hopes dimmed last week after Mitchell left the region without reaching a deal with Israel over limits on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. The deadlock underscored the lack of progress on one of Obama’s chief goals.
Obama set Middle East peace as a top priority at the start of his presidency in January, in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, who was criticized internationally for neglecting the long-running conflict.
A reactivated U.S. role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is also a major part of Obama’s effort to repair America’s image in the Muslim world.
However, his administration has made little headway in clearing obstacles to talks to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and resolve disputes over the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
Relations between Washington and its close ally Israel are facing the worst strains in a decade with Netanyahu’s right-leaning government resisting U.S. pressure to halt settlement expansion.
Netanyahu, whose coalition has a strong pro-settler wing, has rejected a total cessation of building within settlements, saying the “natural growth” of settler families must be accommodated. Washington has rejected that argument.
Netanyahu offered Mitchell a nine-month freeze in settlement building in the West Bank, Israeli officials said, adding that the envoy was pressing for a one-year suspension.
Abbas is demanding an open-ended settlement freeze that also includes East Jerusalem, which Israel captured along with the West Bank in a 1967 war.
Obama said on Tuesday he had told both sides it was time to put an end to the “endless cycle of conflict and suffering.”
“We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then pulling back,” he said.