Obama relaxes settlement demand talks still up in air

A day after President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in New York, Israel’s foreign minister said the summit proved that Israel could successfully fend off international pressure to freeze West Bank settlement construction.

“This government has shown that you don’t always need to get flustered, to surrender and give in,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio. Lieberman, along with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, participated in the New York meetings.

“What’s important for me is that this government kept its promises to the voter … and the fact is that this meeting happened.”

However, Palestinian officials expressed disappointment with the Sept. 22 meeting, as the U.S. appeared to back down from a demand — expressed forcefully in recent months — that Israel cease all construction in West Bank settlements.

George Mitchell, the White House’s special Mideast envoy, said that the Obama administration does not see resolving the settlement issue as necessary to move to “final status” negotiations.

“We do not believe in preconditions, we do not impose them and we urge others not to impose them,” he told reporters after the talks.

The tripartite talks marked Netanyahu’s first meeting with Abbas since taking office in March. Abbas and Netanyahu also met separately with Obama at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel before the three-way talk, which began about an hour late after Netanyahu was delayed in traffic jams. All together, the talks lasted more than two hours.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in front of President Barack Obama. photo/gpo/flash 90/avi ohayon

Beyond a cool handshake, however, there were no signs of progress toward the U.S. goal of restarting peace talks. Still, Obama remained defiant in his pursuit of peace while addressing the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 23.

“Yesterday, I had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas,” he said in his U.N. speech. “We have made some progress.”

Netanyahu emerged from the meeting by saying that the Palestinians had dropped their preconditions for negotiations, and that the questions being dealt with now were “how the discussions will be held, within what framework and how they will be characterized.”

“There was a general agreement by all sides, including the Palestinians, to renew the negotiations without preconditions,” he said.

The Palestinians were singing a different tune. They did not back down from their refusal to resume negotiations until Israel halts all construction in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas and the Gaza Strip, all captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, as parts of a future independent state.

“In today’s meetings, we confirmed our positions and commitment to the road map and its implementation,” Abbas said. “We also demanded that the Israeli side fulfill its commitments on settlements, including on natural growth.”

Abbas said resuming talks “depends on a definition of the negotiating process” and Israel “recognizing the need to withdraw to the 1967 borders and ending the occupation.” Added Abbas: “This was reiterated in the talks with President Obama and in the trilateral talks.”

Unable to declare a relaunch of full-blown negotiations, as he had hoped, Obama was reduced to delivering a polite kick to both leaders’ backsides, and saying that Mitchell would meet next week in Washington with teams sent by Netanyahu and Abbas.

“The president is impatient,” a senior aide to Obama said. “He’s determined but impatient. He wants to get talks started now. There’s a window of opportunity. We have to seize it. There’s been enough talk about talks.”

Mitchell told reporters, “We have substantially and significantly progressed in reducing the number of issues on which there is disagreement, and we hope to complete that process in the near future.”

While Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously demanded a full halt to construction in the settlements, no explicit call for a settlement freeze was made at the Sept. 22 talks.

Moreover, after his separate meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu on Sept. 22, Obama told reporters that Israel had “discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity.”

Seeking to simultaneously appease the U.S. and his hardline coalition government, Netanyahu has agreed to slow settlement construction for a limited time. He has said construction will continue on some 3,000 housing units, most of which are already being built.

However, Obama’s choice of the word “restrain” rankled Palestinians, showing just how difficult the terrain is for Mideast peace.

Obama praised Israel for facilitating greater freedom of movement for Palestinians, then praised Palestinians, as well, for strengthening “their efforts on security.” But he also told reporters, “It remains important for the Arab states to take concrete steps to promote peace.”

In his U.N. speech, Obama said, “We continue to call on the Palestinians to end incitement against Israel, and we continue to say that the United States does not accept the legitimacy of West Bank settlements.

“Even if there are setbacks and false starts,” he added, “I will not waver in my pursuit of peace.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and President Barack Obama are flanked by other officials in a bilateral meeting Sept. 22. photo/gpo/flash 90/avi ohayon

During the meeting, Obama emphasized a need to take risks and give up some things for a bigger goal, said a senior administration official. According to Mitchell, he told the leaders during the meeting: “The only reason to hold public office is to get things done.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote that Abbas described the meeting as difficult and left it feeling gloomy, citing a person who spoke to Abbas afterward. The person also reportedly said Abbas’ advisers urged him not to take part in the talks, but he did so because of a personal request from Obama to attend.

Jibril Rajoub, a top official in Abbas’ Fatah movement, said he was disappointed Obama had softened his stance on settlements and urged him to reassess his position.

“This shows the negative intentions of the Israeli government,” Rajoub said. “The Americans should review their policies toward cooperating with the Israeli government, because its actions pose a danger to regional stability, are against the American government’s policies and contradict international law.”

Israeli media largely portrayed the summit as a futile exercise, while acknowledging Netanyahu’s success in rebuffing the Obama administration’s previous pressure on settlements.

“There has never been such a hollow ceremony,” Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli columnist, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

While Netanyahu might feel that he won, “he should remember the lesson that the Middle East gives all its winners: In this region, the short-term winner loses in the long term,” Barnea wrote.

In a moment deep in symbolism, the meeting began with Abbas and Netanyahu engaging in an unsmiling and seemingly reluctant handshake as cameras clicked away.

“We can do a lot more if we talk to each other,” Netanyahu said later on CNN. “The possibilities are there. Let’s get on with it.”

Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, told reporters, “If the Israeli government believes that they want to make peace to maintain their coalition by saying Jerusalem is not going to be negotiated, refugees are not going to be negotiated, settlements will continue, then they can make peace between themselves.”

In a press conference with reporters, Netanyahu said his 40-minute bilateral meeting with Obama focused not only on peace talks, but also Iran and the recently released Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza.

In his U.N. speech, Obama said that Iran and North Korea “must be held accountable” if they continue to put their pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of international security.

“The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise and that treaties will be enforced,” he said.

The Jerusalem Post, JTA and additional Associated Press reporters contributed to this report.